College towns are their own archetype of place, a special genre of city. They breed certain circumstances that can make for a great home for art to flourish. Athens is no exception. Thought most often known for its lively music scene, there is more going on in the Athens art world than is often realized.
Comedy on Campus
Being in college, despite the stress it brings the average student, permits time and freedom that can be hard to come by in post-grad life. Some students, like Lexi Ritter, use this time to pursue comedy while also having the ability to study things that might offer more conventional career paths or that are also areas of interest for them. College towns can also breed an audience hungry for the form. Both supply and demand exist, and so a perfect opportunity is born.
College also gives students a chance to make room their passions as part of their studies. The University of Georgia Department of Theatre and Film Studies pulls from their talented pool of undergraduate students, like theatre major Maddie Walsh, to not only perform in their productions but to design them as well. Walsh worked as the set designer for the department’s production of In the Blood earlier this year.
A Chance for Movies
An art house theatre like Cine might struggle in other towns like Athens were it not for the audience that the university brings to the area. It gives them the chance to not only bring films into the town that might not otherwise be seen, but to also act as a location of community engagement that large multiplexes don’t.
A Special Stage for Poets
There are some centers of art out there built specifically for college aged artists. The College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational is an international collegiate poetry conference and competition to which the University of Georgia student organization Three Pillars Poetry has been sending a poetry slam team for the past two years. Here the story of getting there is told through Jacob Porter, the only first-time team member this year.
Time just started.
Jacob Porter walked into the first open mic of the fall semester frantic, hoping to get his name on the list to read even though the start time was about five minutes from when he walked through the door. He didn’t realize the list had only just been put out, or that he was only one of maybe three people that were there at that point. In typical fashion for a poetry event, things would be starting late. I couldn’t help but smile.
Fast forward a few months, Jacob is performing in a poetry slam. If he makes it into the top four then he joins the 2019 University of Georgia poetry slam team.
He does, finishing second overall. But he’s the newest member on the team. Everyone else has not only been performing their poems for more than a few months, but Jacob is the only first-time team member. He’s in store for the biggest learning curve.
Many people have heard of a poetry slam before, but few people know what it really is or how it operates.
If you consult the Wikipedia article on Poetry Slam, you’ll see a history that up until recently was pretty widely accepted by the larger community. Which is that, “Poetry slams began in Chicago in 1984 with its first competition designed to move poetry recitals from academia to a popular audience when American poet Marc Smith began experimenting with existing open microphone venues for poetry readings by making them competitive.”
The biggest misconception is that slam poetry is a specific genre of poetry. In reality, a poetry slam is a kind of event which evaluates poets and their poems on performance as much as it does on the actual writing itself.
Consult the website of Poetry Slam Inc., a non-profit which organized several high-level national and international poetry slams, and it describes slam as, “Simply put… the competitive art of performance poetry. It puts a dual emphasis on writing and performance, encouraging poets to focus on what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.”
Yes, poetry slams tend to breed poems of a certain style and subject matter. But a poem doesn’t have to be “angry” for it to be considered a “slam poem”, as I’m often finding myself explaining to people. In reality any kind of poem can be used in a poetry slam and by extension considered a “slam poem”.
Jacob was pretty new to slam by the time he competed to be on the team.
“My idea of him as a poet was less slam poetry and more rap. Simply because when we were in Spanish class together after class he would show me some of his verses and they’d just be him rhyming.”, said his friend Iris Hersey about him before making the team.
There was a high mountain for him to reach the top of now.
The slam to put the team together was in November, and in April that same team would be attending the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI), an international poetry conference and competition that is organized each year by the Association of College Unions International (ACUI). Teams from colleges and universities of all different sizes and types come together to not only compete but also share space and community. The conference features events like open mics and workshops on top of the tournament style slam that takes place over the duration of the conference.
One of the other things people don’t often know about slam is the rules, regulations and procedures.
In a slam, poets receive scores from five judges on a scale of 0 to 10 with 0 being the worst and 10 being the best. This includes numbers like 9.5 or 7.2 or 8.7.
The lowest and highest scores are dropped, and the middle three are combined to create a score for that poet in that round. Essentially, poets end up with a score of 0 to 30 for each poem they read.
Another big thing poets have to be careful of is the No Props rule. It’s pretty straight forward on the surface but it can be a little tricky, here’s how the official rules on the CUPSI website state things:
“Poets may not use props. Generally, poets are allowed to use their given environment and the accoutrements it offers… as long as these accoutrements are available to other competitors as well… its intent is to keep the focus on the words rather than poets who inadvertently use a prop (for example, a timely yet unwitting grab at a necklace, directly referencing the paper are reading from, etc.)”
So, if your poem references a necklace and you grab at your necklace it automatically becomes a prop. Have a line about chains and grab at your chain? Prop. Have a line about hats and you take your hat off in a moment of passion? It just became a prop.
This is just one of many rules in slam that poets have to think about and consider when preparing for and in the middle of their performance. Just like any sport, there’s a way you have to play it.
The other big thing: time limits.
These vary depending on what competition you’re at. For example, if you check the website for the international youth poetry festival Brave New Voices, which features poets from ages 13 to 19, you’ll find the rules for that competition place the time limit at 3:00 minutes with a 30 second grace period. But according to the rules found on CUPSI’s website, you’ll find things are a little stricter.
For each poem at CUPSI a poet has 3:00 minutes, with a 10 second grace period. What this means is that as soon as a poet’s time hits 3:10, they start losing points off their score.
But we’re okay on time for now, so let’s keep going.
Jacob was an excited, if not hesitant member of the team. Our coach Ryan Jones, an Atlanta based poet who went to CUPSI several times himself and has been on multiple Atlanta poetry slam teams, knew going into things that there was a lot of work to be done with Jacob.
When I asked Ryan what he thought of Jacob’s work going into the process he said, “his pieces needed some work… very conversational and rambling and stream of consciousness… there’s room for stream of consciousness but not on stage or in a slam setting.”
But Ryan saw potential and knew to go a little easy on Jacob at first.
“First and foremost, you never know how people are gonna take you putting your hands on their work…. Some folk get very upset… I try to be as nice as possible while also telling the truth”
But once Ryan saw how Jacob took to criticism and to being in the space, he knew he didn’t have to pull punches.
“He was so willing to be open and admit he was new. And didn’t have any ego about him.”
It’s that kind of mentality that made Jacob such an important addition to the team. When you’re constantly workshopping new poems, memorizing and practicing them for hours at a time, it helps to know the person you’re working with doesn’t have an ego. It doesn’t matter how good of a poet or a writer you are, at the end of the day it’s your mentality that matters most. Especially when you’re on a slam team.
Once we were finally at CUPSI, it was a whole new world for Jacob. Though he’d seen pieces online through YouTube channels like Button Poetry and Write About Now, the only events he’d ever been to himself had been small slams on campus at UGA. There’s a big difference between the energy in a space like that, and an international conference where everyone is there to compete. But he didn’t seem intimidated, he took it in stride.
“I think he really approached it with a sense of awe” said our coach Ryan, “along the lines of… entering a space where everyone has this experience. He was learning while we were there. It made him reevaluate what he was writing and what his writing looked like. He also got to see pieces that looked like what he wanted to put up, or where he wanted to go.”
This is where one of the key benefits of attending an event like this lies. If you’re like Jacob, still new to the art, seeing people who are better than you can be even better than feeling like you’re better than everyone. It gives you perspective. Encouragement and votes of confidence can help in the moment, but in the long run it’s experiences like that which push you to keep going and getting better in the future.
At the end of the journey, Jacob and I got on a 9:30 a.m. flight from Houston to Atlanta. We landed, drove from Atlanta to Athens, and we were back in reality. No more poems, no more rules and regulations. No more time penalties to worry about.
Things were exactly the same, and things were totally different.
Jacob and I had some really great conversation in the car ride back to Athens. I asked him questions about his favorite pieces he saw, moments he loved. He went on and on about what inspired him and new things he realized about the possibilities of not just spoken word as an art form and slam as a setting, but about his own work going forward as well.
“I feel like I had a very elementary way of approaching poetry which was just Dr. Seuss to the nth millennium. One of my goals… was to break my own habits and to break the habits of slam in general. I started thinking about what you can do with performance making sure your words aren’t just words and that they’re resonating with people.”
It can be said, quite simply, that Jacob grew from the process and the experience.
Time is just about up, but I’ll leave with one last thing. The moment Jacob said was his favorite of the whole conference, and if I’m being honest it was mine as well. It has nothing to do with scores, or how we faired in the competition, but it has everything to do with why I love poets.
It’s the last night, after all of the official events have concluded, and one of the teams makes an open invitation to have an after party where everyone is welcome. Jacob and I are there with the rest of the team, dancing and talking with poets and friends.
At one point the music cuts out and rather than wait for someone to fix the speaker, someone starts beatboxing and a cypher breaks out. Eventually, after the music comes back on, the cypher moves outside. I’m standing there, next to Jacob, watching poets freestyling and hyping each other up.
Eventually, Jacob decides it’s his turn. He jumps into the middle of the cypher, starts rapping like it’s the last thing he’ll ever do. The crowd increasingly loses their mind because, I’ll be honest, Jacob is on fire. On his last line the entire cypher breaks apart, cheering and screaming and running around, and he just stays standing there catching his breath. And as poets ran up to him, hitting him on the back and wrapping their arms around him…
I couldn’t help but think, this is my favorite poem I’ve ever seen.