Why I go to NPS
Note 2: Days are broken down by chapter, accessible from the Chapters button in the navigation bar. Events are sectioned under each day.
Note 3: PLEASE do not screencap and repost photographs. This is my livelihood, and like you, I took a week off work to donate about 80 hours to NPS. If you’re in a photograph, I’m happy to offer you a six-month complimentary license. Please write me here, so I can email you a contract.
In August 1999, about a week after it happened, I heard about the National Poetry Slam.
I grew up in suburban Boston. The first night I attended a slam was at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge. A team from Dallas was featuring. They were good writer-performers. I mean, they’d better have been; they’d just taken top honors. They were confident, articulated, message-driven, and really nice people.
I’ve spent most of my life longing for my people. High school was no exception. I knew instantly, in that underground bar, I was looking into a world that had room for me. I came back to the Cantab a few times that year. The next summer I committed weekly. And when I turned 18, old enough to drive out of state after midnight, I drove down to the 2000 National Poetry Slam.
It was, well, everything.
I saw Daphne Gottlieb (“this is only a test…”) and Shane Koyczan (“…inquire within”) and Noel Jones (“…seven seconds…”) and Patricia Smith (“Skinhead”) and Iyeoka Okoawo (“run, girl, run…”), and teams from cities I’d never heard of. I met Sou (“Fuck me like a train wreck”) and Bill (“Yeah, we kinda won the whole thing a few years ago) MacMillan. I met my beloved, now passed, Gabrielle Bouliane. In the sweat-crowded, harsh-lit Providence bars, we hollered.
I walked waking into a sleeping place, brimmed with righteous snark, sexy tattoos, bold metaphor, and the cream of ’90s hipsters. I was a part of something. For the first time in my life, I honestly felt cool.
I hosted slams and open mics for the next 10 years. I toured for four months, as part of my undergraduate degree, in 2004. A lot of people I didn’t know took me in. They picked me up, fed me, kept me warm, kept me cool, listened to my woes, got me high, and dropped me off.
I started giving back in 2005.
Some know that’s why I moved to Albuquerque, in fact. To help organize the National Poetry Slam. I’ve designed print materials, Venue and Bout Managed, driven folks around, fed them, organized parties, hosted innumerable poets, run a small press, and even published a guide book to a particular host city. Last year, I started photographing events for Poetry Slam Inc..
I serve in a line of archivers. Gabrielle, who I mentioned before, and Taz Yamaguchi worked video long before Button. David Wong, with his old site, Poetic Dream, handled photographs. He seemed to have this uncanny line from hand to eye to heart; it seemed everything he shot was beautiful, heartul. As that’s want I want for most of my work, anyway, that’s what I try to bring to my community.
Along the way, I learned a lot.
I learned about my privileges and about the systems of injustice that shut out others’ voices in order to amplify mine. I learned sacrifice and humility, and I learned how and why to leverage power. And all along, these people have offered me their most sacred gifts: true friends, true community, and a first-row seat to the poets of the revolution.
When I was ready to hear them without bias, people of all colors, backgrounds, faiths, genders, and sexual identities offered me their stories. When the student was ready, his masters appeared.
This week, I get to continue returning a fraction of what I’ve been given.
In the form of archiving. As performance head-shots for poets who couldn’t otherwise afford them. By showing them what we see when they tell us who they are.
In old English, the words “own” and “owe” were the same. To own was literally to owe; to hold something was to to be in the process of delivering it to someone else. That’s what my place is here. I owe, that I own. I receive, that I can return.
See you in the trenches, my friends.
Sunday Open Mic Before the Storm
Before everything was the open mic.
The open mic shares its spirit with the slam: come, all takers. If you’re a competitor, it’s a whetstone for your performance. If you’re not a competitor, it’s a whetstone for your words. We come to the open mic because the applause is high, the expectations are low, and in that generous space, anything can happen.
It’s completely fair to say without the open mic there would be no National Poetry Slam.
This was my first time at the Java Monkey open mic.
It reminds me a lot of the Cantab: the room is small, the energy builds, the crowd’s ready for truth and raunch, and the axis of the night is the featured poet. Last night’s feature was Brian Patillo. I gather he’s a Java Monkey prodigal son, so it was a big deal, his featuring there. Me, I was ending a long day that started with train-brain. (And Brian was wearing a hat with a brim over his eyes, so there wasn’t much of him to photograph.)
I like going to pre-events at the National Poetry Slam. It gets me in the mood; I get to see old friends; I can remind everyone I do write poems. And for the photographer, it also serves a huge practical purpose:
You gotta check the light.
The light on the Java Monkey stage is great for human eyes. A warm yellow from the tungsten track lights and an overhead bulb, and red walls. But it’s not enough for a camera. Last night I shot at the upper end of where I’m comfortable for web-displayed images, and far beyond what I’d consider usable for print.
If you want to break into concert photography (which, for the money, obviously), do your homework. Shoot at the venue before the show you’re hired to shoot. Introduce yourself to the staff. Stand in all the corners. Then do your best to make yourself invisible.
Monday Orienting and Old Friends
I do love a good party.
Especially a party where food and booze are not just served, but insisted on. Add to that a who’s-who of who-are-you reunions, and a spontaneous cypher circle in the back, and you’ve got one spicy bowl of noodles.
But before we can party, we have to know what’s happening. (Even if in partying we lose all meaningful grasp of it.) So there was a ribbon-cutting, because that’s how they do it in Decatur. Apparently we were a big affair.
Tuesday Everyone starts somewhere
As I write, it’s Wednesday morning, 9:00. Yesterday’s already foggy, so it’s already time to wipe the window.
First was the Rookie Showcase.
Rookies! We’ve all been baby slammers, or at least baby poets, and we know how hard it can be to find recognition. I love that the National Poetry Slam (I don’t think the same is on offer at iWPS or WoWps) makes space for this. Look out, y’all. Some talent is gunning for that trophy of yours.
Then came General Orientation.
From the convocation call to rooks wondering if poems can repeat from day stage to competition stage, to the tragically always-necessary call for consent, orientation’s fundamental to the National Poetry Slam. Used to be we made a space for team introductions. If you joined the community after 2005, be sure to ask an old-timer about Jared Paul’s classic wardrobe malfunction.
Then, finally, the competition started.
I had three photographers shooting, and split them according to whose camera could handle a venue better. I took Java Monkey (early) and the Decatur Library (late). While working Java Monkey feels a bit like being digested, I really didn’t like running between rooms at the Library.
Tuesday, Java Monkey, 7:00
Highlight here: Ann Arbor’s persona poem, from the perspective of a lesbian woman writing to her lover in 1950… from the psych ward. As she’s restrained, electroshocked, lobotomized, and medicated, her language begins to disintegrate. It was absolutely chilling.
Tuesday, Decatur Library (both rooms), 9:00
Highlights here: Ben Figueroa’s request to be pretty, in addition to handsome. Bobby Crawford’s heartbreaking stories of being taken home and assaulted by strange men. Zeke’s poem about his step-father’s shotgun.
Wednesday Mid-week surprises
People of the Sun
Little-known fact: I actually hate conferences like this. I don’t like starving myself for this energy all year, then doing an eight ball for a week.
In order to attend the People of the Sun reading, I had to not shoot the Gender Outlaws reading. And afterward, because it was held in the very ill-lit Decatur Public Library’s auditorium, I didn’t bother shooting Black Poets Speak Out. (And Hongy was on it, anyway.)
The light in the conference room, across the hall, though… that was magic.
Sycamore Place Gallery, 7:00
A lot of solid work at this bout. Highlights here: Slam Free or Die’s ‘male gaze’ and Puro Slam’s ‘Girl, it’s okay to be heard shitting in a public bathroom’ poems.
Little Shop of Stories, 9:00
In a National Poetry Slam first for me, I got to sacrifice at this bout. I totally misread the room, did a sex poem from Couchfucker, and crushed only the judges’ boners. The mood here was h-e-a-v-y. Black power, black injustice, black liberation, and other seemingly intractable problems facing people of color.
Dasan Ahanu’s line, “The judge can take the black off when it suits him” was devastating. That’ll stay with me a long time.
Thursday Covering all bases
We’re Still Kissing, Y’all queer open mic
I learned this afternoon I have complicated feelings about being in queer space. I wanted these poets to get representation, as I may not be shooting them again in competition, but I also felt like an intruder. Chibbi’s poem about becoming the Rich Gay you want to be was hilarious.
Also included are a couple shot from across the hall, at the ASL showcase.
Jaw-dropping Game of Thrones shit, folks. Jaw-dropping. Plus, Harley Quinn cosplay, and Jesse Parent’s poem from the perspective of the spider that bit Peter Parker.
Core Dance Studio, 7pm
Other than Houston’s fourth-round anti-choice poem, which amounted to, “I was going to be a father; how dare you take that away from me,” a pretty good National Poetry Slam bout. (I’m no stranger to my pro-choice-ness: my ex-girlfriend and I got pregnant five and a half years ago. She chose to go through with her pregnancy, and we gave our son up for adoption.) Excellent performances throughout, but no poems that stuck with me.
Library Auditorium, 9pm
I’ve heard this bout is now being called a bloodbath. I’d call it two of the best hours of competitive performance poetry I’ve heard in years. Seattle Rain City brought it hard with a scathingly satirical white privilege poem. Austin blew my mind when the white poet on stage sat down (in full view of everyone) to stop talking, and listen to the black poet.
Friday Tie a bow on it
If it takes a week to get there, damn it, we will make it to Friday.
Asian & Pacific Islander Open Mic
I really wanted to get more coverage at this event, but our finals venue walkthrough ran longer than we expected, and I don’t think anyone realized how far away it is. Next year!
Highlight, for me: Justin Woo’s warning to white people not to eat in Chinese restaurants.
12 Tribes Open Mic
I finally got to read a poem during a National Poetry Slam day event. Bucket list, y’all. Thank you, Paulie, for making the space for a Jewish boy who feels at best Jew-ish to share something special. Jesse’s poem about finding his Jewish ancestors was heartbreaking. Still thinking about it.
Semi-Finals, Agnes Scott College (Presser Hall), 8pm
What a beautiful space for poems! And even as my week’s store of energy was finally starting to fade, the poets gave me some of my favorite poses and expressions of the festival.
Group Piece Finals
If you’re ever trying to explain the National Poetry Slam to a friend who’s unsure, talk to them about Group Piece Finals. Here the cream of collaborative writing and performance is collected for a one-night-only blowout.
Saturday Long road to the light
After NUPIC (underground indies) wrapped with the sun, after the block party was canceled for want of an air conditioner, after the bulk of us woke up… attention shifted to our only remaining responsibility.
It wasn’t without problems. It’s never without problems.
But whatever can be said of it, the National Poetry Slam finals always typifies what you heard during the lead-up. So we heard poems of black liberation, trans and queer liberation, and even a remarkable persona piece about coming to terms with one white woman’s internalized racism… through black Jesus.
Cyphers The Rock Don't Stop
If you’ve ever wondered if the tournamentness of the National Poetry Slam constricts the poets, Cypher Circles (and NUPIC) are their answer. A circle forms, sometimes in a gallery, sometimes in a gazebo, sometimes in an alley behind a venue. A poet performs, then tags another poet, who rinses and repeats. This is, typically, where you hear the best work all week—the stuff that wasn’t always written for the crowd, but for the poet herself. Maybe a slower, quieter poem. Maybe something too short, too long. Maybe something more complex.
Candids We can't perform all the time
Even if you’re new to my work, my love of the candid is obvious.
I’m interested in the subtle, strange truths in people’s faces. In performance, you could say it’s when we lose ourselves and become vessel for something. In daily life, you could say it’s when we reveal ourselves in a vulnerable moment you’d see in a conversation, but never seize on. I like those moments. In one form or another I’ve been reaching for them all my life.
And that’s it, folks.
Another National Poetry Slam done. As I’ve heard about other people’s weeks, I’m even grateful to all of you. Thank you for your graciousness, for your kinds words, for your passion, and all your hard work. Thank you for being kind to me, and holding your mirrors so I could find myself—in your in your rage, in your ecstasy, in your despair, in your wonder.
I’ll see some of you in October, some of you in March, and hopefully everyone again next August. Until then, do what you do best.