Episode 11: How to Win a Poetry Slam
As athletes from around the world compete for gold in Rio this summer, poets from across the U.S. are facing off in a different kind of competition. It is called a poetry slam. On this episode of Stories with a Heartbeat, we talk to poetry slam champion Dasan Ahanu to figure out what this poetic conflict is all about, and how to win.
In 2010, Dasan Ahanu and host Will McInerney were on a slam team together. They were competing in the Southern Fried Poetry Slam. Southern Fried is one of the the largest and longest running poetry slams in the world. Their team from Durham, North Carolina made it all the way to finals that year.
Dasan recalls what it felt like to be in a big-time poetry slam like Southern Fried.
"It's one of the most amazing feelings ever, everything moves in slow motion, you feel like there is this aura around you, you are totally conscious of everything you are doing in terms of body motion, you are hearing each word as it comes out," he said.
Poetry slams are divided up into several rounds. Poets perform against each other with original works that are timed and judged by five random members of the audience on a scale of one to ten. No experience or expertise is required to be a judge at even the biggest poetry slams. According to Dasan, this is intentional.
"On one hand I believe it's sort of that ground roots where it's about connecting with the everyday person, so to get the most every day folks as possible," he said. "I remember there is a quote by Amiri Baraka where he would talk to his poetry students and he would take them out and say go over to that group of construction workers working and spit a poem. And if they don't throw rocks at you and crack you over the side of the head, you might be a poet."
"The best poet rarely wins poetry slams. I have seen it happen and it does happen. But it's very rare." - Dasan Ahanu
So how do you win a slam? It is simple, you need to get the highest scores. But how you get high scores is not as straightforward as it may seem. Dasan says, "The best poet rarely wins poetry slams. I have seen it happen and it does happen. But it's very rare."
Instead, Dasan says it is the best connection that wins. More often than not, the poet who can truly and deeply connect with the audience and the judges will win the poetry slam. This is not a normal competition or a standard conflict. Poetry slams are more like a release of energy going back and forth between the poet and the crowd, the art and the people.
Winning can not be simplified down to the best writing or the best performance. You certainly have be talented in order to be competitive. But the winner is the person who can put it on the line, perform it and move people in that moment. It requires heart and passion and sincerity. It is intangible. It is poetic.
That night in 2010 at the Southern Fried Poetry Slam Will, Dasan and their team made that connection and won the competition. They won the poetic conflict. It was a big achievement and a moment of triumph.
But poetry slams are about a lot more than winning. They are about sharing stories and connecting with people. And sometimes connecting means moving just one person in the crowd, even if you do not end up winning.
In this episode Dasan shares a poem called "Beautiful." It is about a friend of his who survived breast cancer. Dasan slammed with the poem many times, and won many times. But when asked about the most memorable connection he made with those words, his answer had nothing to do with a slam or trophies.
"I was in Raleigh and it was for spark con and I did that poem," he said. "At the end of the event I had a family waiting for me. A whole family. Husband wife and kids. And they are all in tears and they are all hugging me. The wife was a survivor so I stayed and talked with them for awhile...Now I'm choked up, red eyes, they are crying, I’m crying, we're all hugging."
That is why Dasan performs his poetry. He likes to win, but the most important part are the connections, big and small, he makes along the way.
Stories with a Heartbeat is a new podcast produced by North Carolina Public Radio and hosted by poet Will McInerney that uses poetry and storytelling to help us understand conflict. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or your podcast platform of choice.