The National Poetry Slam, or NPS, is the Super Bowl of spoken word. For months, slams featuring thousands of poets are held across the country, building up to late spring when teams are selected at scores of city championships. These squads then practice all summer for a shot at glory at the national competition, which will be held this week for the first time ever in Madison. In short, spectators will see the top active performance poets in the country, as sharpened and powerful as they can be.
Slam is the art and sport of competitive performance poetry. At a team slam, four squads face off against one another, each with four opportunities to share their work. The audience will hear sixteen poems -- individual pieces and/or team pieces -- before the night is through. Judges are picked at random from the audience and give scores based on content, presentation, originality or whatever else they feel like assigning value to. The randomness of the scoring makes slam both very democratic and very unpredictable. There is, quite literally, nothing like this anywhere else.
As someone who represented Madison at the last two National Poetry Slams, both held in Austin -- I'd like to share just a few of the many amazing things you can take part in this week.
- Be a judge
This is always the best way to experience what poetry slam is all about. No prior experience is needed -- just grab a white-board from the host, pay attention to the poets and let your opinions fly.
- Get feedback on your own poetry from some professionals
This year's NPS features a focus on workshops and expanding the slam community. If you're a closet poet who has always wanted to share his or her work but just never had the confidence, come check out a writing workshop or performance workshop facilitated by some of slam's brightest stars. The full workshop schedule is available here.
- Check out a themed showcase: Nerd Slam, LGBTQ showcase, teen showcase, and more
Some of the most exciting poetry at NPS doesn't even take place during the actual slams. All week, themed showcases will feature a bunch of amazing artists all working around a central theme. The Nerd Slam showcases poems about wookies and HTML, Sisterspeak is an open mic for women's voices, the ASL reading is an open mic presented in American Sign Language, the Mosaic is an open mic for poets of color...and the list goes on.
- Find your hometown's slam team and cheer them on
With over 75 teams from around the U.S. and beyond represented, the odds are good that if you're from a major city, your hometown will be competing. Of course the Madison team will have a crowd cheering them on, but Windy City natives can check out both Chicago teams, locals with Twin Cities roots can check out Minneapolis or St. Paul (wink wink), and there are teams from Hawaii, France and everywhere in between coming to town. A full bout schedule is available here.
- Watch a bout with teams you know nothing about
Each preliminary bout will feature four teams. You'll often be pleasantly surprised by going to see a bout in which you know nothing about any of the teams competing. For example, check out Columbus vs. Boston vs. Honolulu vs. Freehold on Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. in the Brink Lounge, or Atlanta vs. Philadelphia vs. Cincinnati vs. Detroit at 10 p.m. in MMoCA. The range of styles from across the country is breathtaking, and any given slam is going to be pretty amazing. A full bout schedule is available here.
- Attend a special late-night event Bouts generally run from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m., and then 10 p.m. until midnight. After that, poets like to party. You're invited to all the late night events as well. I'll be hosting "Hip Hop Headquarters" at Café Montmartre on Tuesday, there'll be a special Erotica Show on Wednesday, a Karaoke gathering on Thursday, and much more. A full schedule of late night events is available here.
- Enjoy poetry that has nothing to do with slam
Not all fans of poetry are comfortable with the competitive nature of slam. If this description fits you, be sure to check out two events that should appeal to page poets, jazz poets and other non-slam poets. Madison's own Rusty Russell will host the "Ken Hunt Reading," an open mic for "beautifully written, un-slamworthy poems… preferably from paper!" Similarly, Ron Czerwein will host "The Classics," a reading of literary favorites and icons. More details are available here.
- Watch some of the top performance poets in the world
They might not all be competing on teams, but slam icons like Taalam Acey, Anis Mojgani, Kevin Coval and many others will definitely be in the house -- hosting events, leading workshops, giving special performances and more. Slam is a unique art form, borrowing from poetry, theatre, stand-up comedy, oratory, preaching and other oral traditions. The best of the best are some truly inspiring artists and really know how to put on a show.
- Be extremely loud
The audience plays a crucial role in slam, more so than in many other performance art forms. They can sway the judges, raise or lower the energy level of a room and help poets bring their work to new levels. Slam is, in many ways, a participatory medium. You can help the Madison team make it to finals, or boo the teams you don't like into oblivion. Bring your friends. The more people come to a bout, the more fun that bout is, generally.
You can get an all-access pass that will allow you to take part in all the workshops, watch all the slams, see all the showcases and attend all the late-night events, available for purchase both online and the NPS headquarters at the Concourse Hotel, the Lyrics on the Lakes festival at the UW Humanities Building, Rainbow Books, Avol's Bookstore, and the Overture Center. A week of poetry -- especially slam poetry -- can be exhausting, but it can also be incredibly rewarding and beautiful. The total immersion route is worth considering.
All in all, it's going to be an amazing week. My last piece of advice would be to not sleep on the preliminary bouts on Tuesday through Thursday. Though it's tempting to just come to the finals Saturday night, NPS has a "no repeat" rule and a lot of the best poetry will be performed in the prelim bouts as teams struggle to qualify for semifinals.
Though slam has its detractors and, certainly, its faults, the nationals always make for a pretty beautiful week. The spoken-word community, nationwide, is incredibly diverse in terms of both identity and poetic style, and the National Poetry Slam shines a spotlight on this. I hope you'll be as inspired by it all as I am.