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I first attended the Individual World Poetry Slam (shortened to iWPS) in 2005. It was in Worcester, MA, practically my back yard, and just a few weeks after I got back from my first tour. Back then, it was held at the end of January. Which everyone thought was funny: Hold the National Poetry Slam in the desert in August; hold iWPS in the Worcester tundra in January. Genius.
Where its older sister seemed like a sort of open party, the iWPS felt more like a private function. There are no teams to speak of, if you don’t count large groups of friends or entourage. But if you knew someone going in, or you were comfortable telling someone you loved their poem, you could make new friends in the host hotel lobby. From there, as the festival goes, you were on your own.
We didn’t realize it at the time. We both competed in a Cover Slam—reading other people’s work. He took second place with my first exposure to Matthew John Conley’s “The Tenuous Nature of Reality”*, and I took first, with Christian Drake’s “Johnny Lexicon.” Genuinely surprised I won, I congratulated Damien, and pretty well forgot about him.
A month or so later, a brouhaha started on LiveJournal, and Damien was at the center of it. My late friend Gabrielle Boulianne clued me in, and since I’ve always been one for the underdog, so I reached out to him. A few months later, I realized I was moving to Albuquerque, where Damien’s from, and I noticed he was selling a truck. He said I could have it for “a dollar three eighty.” (“So then it’s not for sale?” “Not unless you got a dollar three eighty, pendejo.”) Then I asked for a place to crash when I got there, and since he thought I was joking, he said sure.
When I got to town at 6:30am on Monday, May 23, 2005, he greeted me at the door to his apartment with a toothbrush in his mouth. His apartment was full of boxes; his roommates were moving out. I replaced those boxes with my boxes for about a week. We drank a lot of scotch. I did his dishes. We’ve basically been married since.
This is my first chance to shoot the Individual World Poetry Slam, and again, in Flagstaff it’s all but in my back door.
I can’t wait to see all your shining faces on stage, on the sidewalk, in the lobby, and maybe, this time, in your rooms. A kind of roving photojournalist at these things, I have a new purpose on my own. It’s to share you, with the world, and yourself.
John Quiñones is a hell of a host.
I met Mr. Q in Decatur this summer, after exchanging a few texts about this week. He was gracious, quick-witted, and spoke with his own blend of irony and sincerity that made me like him immediately. And last night was no exception.
Hosting is an art and practice like poeting. It requires a certain mix of vulnerability, charm, and whip-cracking. Unlike baring your truths for a few minutes onstage, though, bad hosting means audience attrition, for reasons a lot of them can’t name. Though the slam started late, John kept us happy and engaged. Then he plowed through the whole show in admirable time. When it was over, I felt like I’d eaten a meal.
A lot of that, of course, had to do with the hearty, smart, far-reaching work on stage. Crystal Valentine mopped the 15 other awesome performance poets. But some was due to our host city coordinator, and while everyone rightly crows about the poems this week, I want to start by shining a little light his way.
Someone—maybe John Q, maybe Diné poet Rowie Shabala—had the idea to introduce the festival with a call to place. While it wasn’t as well attended as last night’s slam, the poems were all top-notch. I loved hearing poets represent themselves, and a place which is a part of them, them a part of it. In some ways, these are foundation poems. Learn where you are to learn who you are. Learn who you are to learn where.
I didn’t perform any Dredge poems, because though they’re all of Massachusetts, I couldn’t think of a single one that’s about Massachusetts.
So it follows, where we gather reflects us. We met for Orientation in the host hotel lobby. We were serenaded by several of the Individual World Poetry Slam’s first international competitors. Two folks from South Africa, one from Cairo, via New Zealand. All of them interesting writers, and very nice people. Pilote, whom I haven’t seen since his friend Julie drank a full bottle of scotch on my porch in 2005, wowed everyone with the promise of a Slam Poetry World Cup in Paris next year. Interesting to see how these events evolve over time.
On the other side of things, Seth White said something I want to put away for later study. To paraphrase: “The Individual World Poetry Slam, remember, is a gimmick to put poems in front of audiences, by any means necessary. If we have to make a fake tournament, then we’ll make a fake tournament.” Hell yeah, Seth. I thought Suzi Q followed that elegantly with (again paraphrased), “Don’t think of these poets as your competition, think of them as the folks you get to put on a show with.”
I did shoot it, but after a card failure, I don’t have any good images to post.
The audience was still recovering from the night before, so those missing missed a lot of great work. Crystal Valentine repeated a few poems from the Last Chance Slam, and, I thought, was robbed in the scores. Everyone made great faces, moved their hands in interesting ways. Ed Mabrey gave me chills with his visionary BLM Radio/”I can’t breathe” poem.
It’s fascinating to watch the differing strategies between the Individual World Poetry Slam (or the Women of the World Slam) from team competition. You hear a variety of work unlike the standard fare. The varyingly timed rounds force new ideas, too.
I love this space! It looks like an old train car crossed with a ’50s chrome-capped diner. The poets here brought the strange, the lyrical, the heartrendingly confessional, and some funny. The bout started late, and I had to leave after the first half, so apologies to the poets I missed in the second mini-bout.
Late night Thursday was the Extreme Championship Poetry bout, which I set down the camera for, and enjoyed the old-fashioned way.
Several people mentioned the importance of this reading, of a black space, for themselves. In a city like Flagstaff, where there isn’t much black presence, much less black community, it was critical for them to have a place to gather, and embrace their blackness. A place where they could share, among other things, a common identity, and the common concerns and philosophies of a common identity.
For me, it was, as always, a gift to be allowed in this space. To document and share some of the flavor of that special space. A shame you can’t hear the poems. Fire.
It must be obvious I’m interested in this week’s colors. No one told me the stage at The Hive was cast in this hard blue-teal light, so it was a delightful surprise to walk into.
By this point in the week, I stop being able to remember individual poems. That’s a shame, because there’s so much good stuff, and I want to remember it. I want to walk up to a poet whose work I loved, and say, “This was what I loved about your work.” It’s typically only when a poem gets unfairly punished that it sticks out.
…which is precisely what happened at this bout. Michael Harriot read a fascinating, deeply moving poem about the “secret ingredient” in black families’ cooking: grief. It didn’t score the lowest in that round, but it sure didn’t get what it deserved.
Eat 1-4 heaping blotches of 400,000 Scoville-rated hot sauce, then try to read your poem, like normal. I took four. My stomach still hurts.
It was awesome, and so dumb.
In a few important ways, I think I enjoyed this Individual World Poetry Slam more than most PSI events in recent memory, because I gave up working every moment of it.
Saturday morning, I attended Rowie Shebala’s Diné storytelling workshop, and the first half of the People of the Sun reading. I caught the very tail of the Women’s reading, cameras still in bag, and gave each poet my full auditory attention. It’s a funny trade-off: on the one hand, I feel like I was really there for it. On the other, I have only a mush of poems in my memory now to show for it.
This year I spent more time in the green room, with the smokers behind the venue, and in the eaves, with the organizers. I’m really trying to up my storytelling game. Some photographs tell a complete story in themselves, or enough of one that looking at it, you fill in the details to satisfy yourself. Others tell a piece of a story, and could be separated from their kin, but the larger story would suffer.
Generally speaking, it seems wider angles tell more story. Since shooting in my hometown last month, I’ve spent a lot more time in the 24-35mm range. Even as it minimizes the subject, it really opens the story.
I enjoyed finals a lot. Rage Almighty surprised me with his bold emotional candor. Christopher Michael brought a fire I’d never seen in him before. Ashley Haze burned right into my heart. If you went by the poetry alone, it was a great night.
But I was saddened that this great week of light, word, and insight was capped with so many missing seats. Add to that the bright house lights (compensated for in the photos), and it was hard to forget how little of Flagstaff was there to watch us decide our new champion.
Likewise, Ed Mabrey’s final-round improv didn’t move me like other poems I saw of his. I wish he’d brought one of those. I’m not opposed to improv at all—I think what he did was a feat of impressive intelligence, skill, and heart. So maybe it was the self-referencing, the insulation, the call to action for the few people in the room, that I felt was flat. Dazzle me with truth over acrobatics. Dazzle me with both, as he did in the first two rounds, and the preliminaries, and I’ll gladly call you my champion.
I harp on this because last night’s scuttlebutt was all, “That final poem just… brought it together!” As it did do that in some ways, I felt like it pushed apart a few of the things I love.
By now you gotta know I love the candid. I’m interested in the sincere moment, something like Cartier-Bresson’s Definitive Moment. The moment someone’s doing something I read as universal, something imminently readable. Here are all the extra moments I borrowed from everyone this week.
More coming early this week.
And of course, I looked for shapes and places. It’s a meditation for me. Though I didn’t leave a lot of evidence of it, I became really fascinated with color this week. Color as a reason for an image. Color as a compositional tool. Color as a story in itself.