Or, we thought we did. Looking back, a few of the elements of a poetry slam were missing: no judges, no scores, and no one won. We all just read poems. But we didn’t know a slam was supposed to be a competition, and “Poetry Slam” looked nice on a flyer.
I didn’t need the scores—to me, it was already extremely competitive. It was my chance to prove I could write.
In college I kept writing but didn’t perform it anywhere. I just had secret competitions in my head with anyone I thought was cocky and/or a good writer. Then, in an Intro to Creative Writing class, I met Patrick Maloney, who told me I should try slamming.
Then that February, I made the University of Minnesota’s slam team to compete at the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational, as an alternate. Patrick pushed me really hard to keep writing, and to be serious about poetry. As we practiced and moved towards CUPSI, we decided that we were a five person team, making me an equal member.
My first year as a member of the University of Minnesota team changed my life. I was immersed in a vast community of poets, including my coach Michael Lee. I was extremely lucky to have him as my coach, both because he is an incredible performer, and because he focused on craft and honesty; he told us something like, “Winning CUPSI is great…but writing an excellent poem that means something to you can change your life.”
This was a huge shift for me. When I wasn’t focused on the competitive aspect of it, I started writing better poems. I brought “We Are Here” to CUPSI that year, in honor of all the strong and struggling women in my life. It’s my most-performed poem, and one I still have a lot of fun doing.
That summer, I did that poem in an open mic back home in Rochester, and people were really impacted by it. I was stunned. Suddenly, I was being asked to perform at community events all around Rochester. I long believed that poetry was important, but that was the first time I felt like my poetry was important. And it didn’t feel like my own poetry anymore; more like something that chose to come to me, that I was given the chance to be able to share with people.
This past year, I made the University of Minnesota’s slam team again and got to work with Hieu Minh Nguyen, which was unbelievable, as I had looked up to him ever since that first poetry slam I judged at Kieran’s. He coached me to write more about my own life, and to break out of writing styles I’d gotten stuck in. I started to feel like a real member of the slam community. (A lot of that was also due to Allison being so warm and encouraging every time I saw her.)
Nothing made me realize how far I’d come both as a writer and a person so much as going to Rustbelt in Detroit this summer, where I performed almost all the slam poems in my repertoire going back to the first one I wrote. It was, hands-down, the best poetry tournament I’ve ever been to, and my first bout at Rustbelt was the best bout of my life. I went with my friends Pat, Jen, and Haley. We were Team Undateable. And all of us brought poems illustrating how undateable we were.
Rustbelt, for us, was more about getting to listen to the other poets there. Most of them were established and a bit older, and it was the highest quality poetry I’ve ever heard in a slam. (If you haven’t watched any of Button Poetry’s videos from Rustbelt, go watch them now. especially Jamaal May, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Danez Smith—all of these poems were in our first bout, and my favorites.) It was also the most engaged, loving tournament I’ve ever been a part of.
These past few years, I’ve grown a lot, and changed a lot in my writing approach. I’m still a pretty competitive person, but I think I’ve better learned to channel competitive energy into the craft of writing, rather than needing to prove myself. Slam has taught me to look at my life and the world in a sharper way, and made me more genuine with myself. I’ve been exposed to more people’s stories and courage than I think I could anywhere else.
I’m sure I’d heard the word “community” and “honored” a lot in my life, but here is where I started to feel what that meant. I’m excited that I’m just at the beginning of my life here. I could not be more honored to be a part of this community.