San Diego Poetry Slam on Voice and What We Call Ourselves


October 10th, 2016: second-round qualifiers for the San Diego Poetry Slam team at Queen Bee’s Art & Cultural Center.  Doors opened at 8:00 p.m.

At 6:30 there was a line stretching out through North Park, vibrating on the sidewalk.  My fiancée and I went into Fatboy’s Deli down the block to use the ATM.  I hesitated.  Should we get sandwiches and just get in line? 

I didn’t say anything.  We were meeting people across the street at North Park Beer Co. first—and we couldn’t not go.  That would be rude.

We put our money in our pockets and crossed the street, looked back toward Queen Bee’s.

“Should we… get in line?  Forego the beers?”  I said it!  I didn’t mean to.

Together we looked back at the line from the middle of the crosswalk.  We became those people, the ones I roll my eyes at in the car, stopped walking for a few seconds while craning our necks to look for the tiny shining tapeta lucida of the last people in line.

I don’t think humans even have tapeta lucida.  I don’t know why I was so anxious to get into a long line.

“We’ll be fine,” my fiancée said, and that’s all I needed.

By the time we finished our beers and made it into the line, I felt nervous again that we wouldn’t get in.  I wanted to throw them my $5 and rush inside; the crowd was so—as we say in academia—hype.  This was the first slam I’d ever gone to, and I could feel already why people love them.  So many people excited for poetry in one place!

Once the doors opened, the line moved quickly.  We found what were possibly the last two chairs in the building.  Everyone behind us was left standing, and the slam lasted three hours.

Rudy Francisco, coach of San Diego’s team, opened the event, walked out in a great wave of applause. He has this excited-but-calm thing about him.  A knowledge and kindness that would make an excellent coach.

The microphone stand was on the floor, in the middle of the crowd, the stage left open behind it for audience to sit on.   He explained the rules.

The night started out with two “sacrificial poets,” performers who’d read their poems, receive scores from the judges, but wouldn’t compete.  A sort of warm-up for the room.

The second of the sacrificial poets stumbled, got a second of stage fright, and for a moment there was quiet in the room.  I could feel his muscles tensing from my seat in the back, his sweat building.  And then:

“Let’s go!”

“Come through!”

People started shouting from the audience.  They snapped and clapped, rallied him hard.  He remembered the lines and finished his poem: a letter to those who don’t feel good enough.

One of the most amazing parts of this experience for me was the absolute sense of community and lifting in the room.  Everyone loved everyone and the shared space.  It’s terrifying to share yourself with anybody, let alone 300 near-strangers, but there’s this huge drive to do it.  To be heard.  To hear.

Some of the audience sat on the stage behind the microphone to watch.  Poets and the audience on the same level, something about that projecting gratitude, community, some kind of understanding.  I sometimes watched those people on the stage when I couldn’t see the poet.  Their eyes unwavering on the voice, heads tilted in concentration, in blue and green light.

There were two rounds with seven poets each, with poets performing one poem up to three minutes long.  Five judges, chosen from the audience with promises that they didn’t know any of the competitors, wrote scores from 1 to 10 on whiteboards and held them up.  Rudy Francisco read them aloud, and Harry, Rudy’s assistant who was spotted not-quite-running down the aisles throughout the night, tallied.

Feature poet Sha’Condria “iCON” Sibley did a set in between rounds, just when the energy in the room was starting to dip.  iCON is a poet from New Orleans, the first woman to win the Texas Grand Slam, and is ranked currently as the #2 female poet in the world.

She did a poem calling out to all the women with names that are often mispronounced, misunderstood.  “To All the Little Black Girls With Big Names” was the first piece of the night that truly reached into my guts.  I felt a tug when she asked every “-sha,” “-isha,” “-ana,” and “-iqua”-named woman in the audience to raise their hands.  Ever since, I’ve wanted to tell people who ask me to repeat the whole seven letters of my name that there are “no silent letters, no accents.”

She thanked the audience and Rudy for inviting her to perform and commented on the warmth and light in the room.  She said to take care of it, because having a community like this is important and doesn’t exist everywhere.

iCON, blurry, killing it

Advancing competitors did one more poem each, and the rankings were announced shortly after.

Chrissy Croft won 1st place this night, with a poem about her job in a drug addiction treatment center, how the teenagers there are so achingly human.  She grappled with the “rules” of how she’s allowed to interact with them while they’re there, and how she’s not supposed to speak to them at all for years after they leave.  This was an emotionally charged but well-edited piece, totally deserving of a win, in my humble slam-virgin eyes.

Rolling waves of “Go poet” shouted into the room, a humble and respectful acknowledgment to the performers and once-strangers.

Every performer and member of the audience arrived earning the respect to be called “poet.”  It’s a huge name to inhabit, but sometimes that’s all we’ve got.  A chosen name.  A chosen space.  Home for a few hours.  I will definitely be back next month.

The third round of San Diego Slam Team’s qualifiers will be Monday, November 14th, 2016 at Queen Bee’s Art & Cultural Center in North Park at 8 p.m.  They have the space the second Monday of every month.  Come through, come early, and stay awhile.

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