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The 2014 Anthem Poetry Slam got off to a rough start.
Hundreds of students filed into Chumash Auditorium Sunday evening to attend the event, just to sit and wait for almost an hour before it began. The slated emcee Prentice Powell had evidently ran into a family emergency, jarring the night’s plans.
At 6:45 p.m. — 45 minutes after the event’s intended start time — scheduled performer Tatyana Brown took the stage as Powell’s replacement.
“There are several hundred of you in this room right now to listen to poems,” Brown announced to her eager audience. “I don’t know about you, but that’s exciting for me.”
The Anthem had finally begun.
Brown proceeded to detail the history and rules of a poetry slam.
“Slam poetry was invented in Chicago in 1986 by a construction worker named Mark Smith,” she said.
Two audience members called out the proper response: “So what?”
Brown explained that one rule of a slam is to respond to every mention of “Mark Smith” with “so what,” then practiced the call and response with her listeners.
Slam poetry audience protocol is to verbally respond to performances, usually by exclaiming “word,” or to snap in appreciation for a well-crafted phrase.
Additional rules included judging: After every performance, three randomly selected judges from the audience would rate each poet on a scale from one to 10, one being the worst score and 10 being the best. The poets would also rate each other’s performances, prompting a coordinated chorus of “Who gives a fuck?” from the audience.
Brown joked about the concept of quantifying art on a simple numeric scale.
“The shit that happens at a slam isn’t supposed to just sit on stage and get scored,” she said.
Instead, she said, it is meant to make listeners “think thoughts and feel feelings.” She then warmed the audience up with an example of slam poetry.
Brown racked her brain, cleared her throat and began the poem, “Vajazzle.”
She proceeded with a few humorous stanzas, parodying the the concept of “vajazzling” — the decoration of the female pubic area with jewel designs. The poem then evolved into a criticism of society’s impression upon females and their resulting shallow, irrational priorities.
Brown had her audience laughing in the beginning, but by the end, they were thinking thoughts and feeling feelings.
English sophomore Naomi Catterlin said slam poetry is effective at evoking emotion because it makes poetry interesting.
“I’m not a really big poetry person,” Catterlin said. “For me, it’s more interesting than just reading a poem to see it performed, and a personality express the poem. When you’re saying a poem out loud instead of reading it, you’re more able to convey your message.”
Brown finished her practice poem and introduced the first competitor of the night: Sam Sax. The first round of The Anthem had started.
Sax performed a poem about the miracle of life, painting pictures of near-death experiences, each highlighting the impossibility of a person’s life, describing both life’s grossness and beauty. His style was distinct: curt and understated, with a sense of dry humor which eventually scaled into profound musings on life and death.
Next up was returning champion Simply Kat, who performed a poem about marginalized races — from a white woman’s point of view.
Kat introduced herself as a woman who grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and attended an elementary school where 90 percent of the students were black, but could not understand her peers’ struggles because white privilege blinded her from it.
Her poem described this blindness, claiming white people could hardly understand the implications of white privilege if they are always influenced by it.
Then, Terisa Siagatonu came up. She opened up with an anecdote: Kat had evidently selected her poem based on Siagatonu’s choice of race-based poetry.
“She turned to me and said, ‘If you’re going to do your brown-girl poems, I’m going to do my white-girl poem,’” Siagatonu said.
She said this exemplified one of her favorite parts of slam: camaraderie between poets. She then began her poem, which likened violence in Oakland to violence in the Middle East and delved into racism and discrimination in the United States.
The final contestant in round one was Levi the Poet. He began by singing, then launched into his spoken poetry. His tone of voice was overwhelming: loud, punching and laden with vibrato as he performed a poem about anger toward God.
Then, round one was over.
The second and third rounds were filled with more poetry about race, drugs, sexuality, tears, laughter and families. There were “weird poems,” poems about words and poems accompanied by ballet choreography.
The ballet poem was Kat’s. It was an ode to her childhood ballet instructor, who acted as a mother figure during family hardships. While painting a verbal picture of this woman, Kat also paralled ballet with life in general, using phrases such as, “Don’t get ahead of the music.”
English junior Jenna Chudzicki connected with Kat’s ballet poems.
“I feel like it tied to the audience better,” Chudzicki said. “Race and sexuality pieces don’t always touch everyone.”
On the other hand, everyone has families, so poems about parents are widely relatable, she said.
When the second and third rounds were through, judges totaled the scores: Kat took first, Siagatonu second, Sax third and Levi fourth.
Brown said the event was an overall success.
“I had a great time,” she said. “I feel like the crowd was really amazing and people were responsive. The poems they got to hear were really well-crafted and evocatively performed, and the poets who got on stage showed off diverse styles.”
However, she wished she could have seen more diversity in the poets’ lineup, in which Siagatonu was the only non-white performer.
“I think it’s possible to see inclusive and diverse representation where there isn’t something missing from the lineup,” Brown said. “It’s possible to create a lineup with more than one performer from a specific type of background that doesn’t compromise at all on the excellence of craft.”
Though Brown had originally expected to compete, not emcee, she still enjoyed doing her job.
“I got into this work to get the opportunity to say poems in front of an audience,” she said. “But the thing that keeps me doing the work I’m doing is a love for the space that’s created in poetry shows for people who love and listen to great art.”
Missed The Anthem? Watch it below.