The concluding event of WordFest 2015 was the Slam Invitational held at the Steamer 10 Theater, Albany, NY. There were 7 — count ‘em 7! — teams from New York & Massachusetts, including Albany’s own Nitty Gritty Slam Team that hosted the event. Thom Francis, el presidente of AlbanyPoets & the Nitty Gritty Slam manager (I guess) served as host/MC, which was no easy job with this boisterous audience.
The “teams” performed as individuals or as duos, but the individual performers were not introduced or named, identified only by the Team names, which were Pilot Light Poets (Pittsfield), Pure Ink (Buffalo), Nickel City (Buffalo), Roc Bottom Slam Team (Rochester), Rhyme for Reason (Syracuse), Underground Poetry Spot (Syracuse), & the aforementioned Nitty Gritty Slam Team (Albany). There were 4 rounds, no eliminations, the order of performance after the first round varied by the scores (I think).
The first round almost drove me out, what with all the ole Slam clichés manifesting themselves so early on. Lots of loud, preachy pieces banging you over the head with their message for a full 3 minutes, often recited way too fast — as well as plenty of “poetry therapy” — sometimes all in the same piece. K.P. (from the Albany Team) shouted a piece on lucid dreaming which made me wonder, what would this poem sound like if read/recited in a normal, indoor voice? Then I had that same thought about some other pieces in the following rounds.
In round 2, I began to have some hope for real poetry with the Nickel City poet’s piece on “fat kids” & body image when he started off in a quiet voice, but he soon went into his Slam voice & it became just another Slam performance. & the preaching & shouting continued with the other teams — I get it, racism & discrimination (for any reason is bad), so was Columbus & the genocide of native peoples. But I was cheered by the originality of a piece the Pilot Lights Poets entry did based on the Mario Brothers video game.
Round 3, after a break, began with a bad sign, the “sacrificial poet” used to calibrate the judges was Elizag who did a familiar piece on white privilege (that’s not the bad part), the bad part was that she got all “mother-fucking-10s” from the 5 judges. & the night went on from there. If there was an award for cramming all the Slam hot-button clichés into 1 piece (into a love poem, ostensibly, at that), it would go to Amani from the Albany Team, who also got all 10s (maybe that is the award). But the Underground Poetry Spot duo’s love poem was a welcome relief, as was, almost, the Nickel City poet’s poem for her daughter, if it hadn’t been delivered in unrelenting pressured speech. The moving piece titled “Open Letter to a Priest” from Pilot Light Poets, that I had heard in an open mic a while back, was delivered in a welcomed more modulated performance, but suffered from a time penalty.
The 4th round predictably was full of 10s, but unfortunately their ubiquity negated their significance, judges had lost their ability to judge — maybe they were as exhausted as the rest of us? While the shouting continued, with some manic jerking around the stage, & a good piece that unfortunately didn’t stop when it was over (from the Nitty Gritty team), there was a thoughtful piece from Roc Bottom on the distractions of drugs & video games in the ‘hood, & another, a powerful feminist statement (that got all 10s) “A Poem for a Co-Worker I Should’ve Hit with My Car” by the Rhyme for a Reason poet.
So when all the scoring was tabulated & the numbers crunched the winner was Pure Ink, with Roc Bottom in 2nd & Nickel City in 3rd place. I have no idea how I would have scored this, though I have my own particular top-of-the-heap poems, of which there were few amidst the many spit & attitude — & preachy — performances. At least here, unlike at some Slam invitationals I’ve heard of, the home team did not stack the judges & the results, & the visitors got treated fairly & with respect. I guess what I want to say is that “Slam” would be a lot more fun if it weren’t so god-damned competitive, & formulaic.
& so, with a big sigh of relief, but also a bit of a sad sense of it-is-over-for-another-year, I bid a bourbon farewell to Albany WordFest 2015. What can we say to Thom Francis & AlbanyPoets, & all the participants in this week-long event that can express how fantastic this experience was? The best tribute I can pay to WordFest is to draw a straight line through history from The Readings Against the End of the World organized by Tom Nattell from 1984 to 1993 to this annual event. If the World does not know that Albany is Poetry City by now, it must be smoking all that “free weed” that Tom promised.
So, if the academic poets & right-wing word-haters don’t take over & turn paper into smoke (as Uncle Wiggly once said, I think), we will continue on — writing poems, going to open mics, organizing readings & arts events & we will see you next year for WordFest 2016 — deo volente.
This post originally appeared on Dan Wilcox’s blog on April 28, 2015.