With 76 teams of poets from the United States, Canada and Europe converging on Madison to attend the annual National Poetry Slam festival Aug. 3-9, the city is set to become the center of the spoken-word universe during one of the hottest weeks of the year.
Dasha Kelly, artistic director for the festival, notes that the teams alone will bring 500 individual poets to town. The Milwaukee-based poet and novelist expects hundreds more attendees from around the country to bulk up audiences for both the annual team competition and a full schedule of workshops, showcases and panel discussions.
"These are the boldest, most powerful people in their cities," says Kelly, summing up the event's appeal. "Just having each of them do one poem makes for a great show. You want to come see that."
The participatory nature of slams, which randomly pick audience members to judge "bouts" between teams, is another draw. Even at the national level, just plain folks decide who ends up besting the competition and progressing through the tournament brackets to the finals. "So you can go expecting to spectate and end up helping to determine who's going to win the bout that night - or win the title," says Kelly. "It's definitely tailored for the audience."
At just $5 for individual bouts and $7 for a two-bout ticket, the competition portion of the festival is very affordable. Plus, with venues as varied as the Bartell Theatre, the Brink Lounge and the Overture Center hosting the spoken-word face-offs each evening, audiences of all ages will have a chance to attend.
But Kelly cautions that this year's slam isn't just about determining an ultimate victor. Or even having the opportunity to hear perpetual heavyweights from Berkeley, New York and Seattle throw down their best syllables.
Unlike festivals past, "Lyrics on the Lake" will also cater to would-be performers and wordsmiths who may have just biked in from Waukesha or Fitchburg to hang with their people and learn a little bit more about crafting the spoken and written word at the same time. Kelly's team has planned workshops, panel discussions and even solo performance showcases during the daytime hours that should pique the interest of newbies as well as hardcore slammers.
And that's a big change. "Prior to when we decided to host [the festival], the day events were a couple of workshops that were strongly focused on how to improve your slam, how to market your slam, how to book your tour," Kelly explains. "But we wanted to make sure that once this event leaves, we've left behind new opportunities for people who are here all the time, our neighbors. So we've put some things in place so whether you're part of a team or not, this event will still be attractive and of value."