Hello everyone! My name is Kevin Yang. I had the opportunity to compete at the inaugural BlackBerry Peach National Slam Poetry competition hosted by the National Federal of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) in Daytona Beach, Florida this past October. I’ll be reflecting on my experience out in Florida and about what learnings I brought back with me to Minnesota.
I have been writing spoken word poetry and competing in slams for almost the past 12 years, but between different life transitions and the pandemic, it had been almost 4 years since I last competed. When I saw the Button Poetry qualifier pop up on my feed, I was eager for an opportunity to get involved in the slam scene again.
After a week of preparing and practicing my set, I showed up at Icehouse really nervous and unsure of how the night would go. It didn’t feel real until we all lined up and did our bout order draw. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to share poems in a bunch of different contexts, from protest rallies, to classrooms, in front of friends and families, at memorials, and there is nothing that is more nerve-racking and similarly more energizing to me than finishing the bout draw and waiting to hear the sacrificial poet. The poet read their piece, scores were given, and it was on.
Being on stage again and seeing the lights and the faces, breathing in the energy, it was a reminder that I was alive and doing what I loved. I had practiced these poems alone for hours but hearing the reactions and the room shift when I hit my favorite lines made my heart sing. Being able to hear other amazing poets share their work was also so inspiring, especially since I hadn’t been around this for so long.
My favorite memory from the night was waiting to go onto the stage during the final round and sharing boatloads of appreciation with one of the other finalists. After all the scores were read, I was so excited to have learned that I won and that I would be representing Minnesota at the national slam. I spent the next couple of months preparing my poems and packing and before I knew it, it was time to board my plane headed to Florida.
The BlackBerryPeach National Poetry Slam was hosted by an organization called the National Federal of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) as a part of a larger conference for different state poetry societies around the country. Many of these organizations hosted slams and sponsored poets, like me, that would compete at the slam alongside other poets who signed up as individuals. There were roughly 40 poets from around the country competing. Each night there were 4 bouts with 10 poets each. Each poet was to compete at 2 preliminary bouts with the top 12 advancing to the finals that Saturday night.
My first bout was in the early evening at a beautiful venue called the Midtown Cafe near Bethune Cookman University. It was a cozy space with most of the poets squeezed next to each other at cafe tables, like many other slam venues I’ve performed at before. One thing I love about smaller spaces is how easy it is to feel the energy of everyone around you.
Performing in the first bout was such a joy. I was super nervous and forgot a line mid-performance but was able to push through. Even though I didn’t score as high as I would have liked to, it was still such a beautiful night being surrounded by poetry.
One of my favorite poems of the night was by a friend who I had carpooled to the venue with. Before he started performing, he moved the mic to the side and created space for him to move around and interact with the audience. When he began performing, I could feel the space transform, pushing past the 3-foot-by-3-foot box around the microphone that I often feel locked into. Similarly, that night I watched so many other lovely poems that were beautifully written, played around with different forms, and that expanded my understanding of what this artform was capable of. After my bout was over, I stuck around for the late-night bout and continued to be blown away by how skilled at writing and performing these poets were.
My second bout was the following night in a larger meeting on the Bethune Cookman University campus. The space was much bigger and spread out which made the energy a bit more diffuse. At this point in the competition, I knew that I didn’t have much of a chance to qualify for finals, so I gave myself the grace to not need to worry about the scores or giving the perfect performance. Instead, I just came in with the intention of enjoying the poetry. With another night in, it was also fun seeing familiar faces from the previous bout and meeting new folks. I was happy with how I performed for my second bout, even if I didn’t qualify for finals.
Later that night, I got the chance to experience my first underground poetry slam. Unlike the usual format of 12 poets competing against one another, the underground poetry slam had a group of 16 poets putting up their own money and facing off in one-on-one elimination rounds with nothing but audience noise as the judge. The atmosphere was wicked. The audience was a circle of the same poets who had been competing against one another these past couple of days. It was artists competing and appreciating one another in a room full of other artists who understood how difficult and rewarding this journey could be. Each round ended with raucous applause and the two poets exchanging handshakes and warm hugs.
Saturday was Finals Day and I spent most of the day just hanging out with folks I had met that week, getting food and relaxing. We hung out in our hotel rooms, watching TV, discussing our favorite Marvel characters, and reminiscing on our own past slam experiences. It was a great way to decompress and to enjoy some downtime after two nights of competing.
One interesting aspect about the conference was that while the poetry slams were happening at night, there was another set of programming during the day for the folks from the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. This included their own poetry competition that had invited folks to send written and video/audio versions of their poems which were also judged and given prizes. They also hosted critique sessions, social hangouts, and workshops.
I had the chance to attend an afternoon workshop where former slam-master and organizer, Bob Holman, shared his life’s work around language activism and was blown away hearing about his history working with others to create a larger spoken word community and how he incorporates multiple mediums like documentary filmmaking into his exploration of the work.
It was great getting the chance to interact with the other conference participants, seeing them at our bouts, and hearing how excited they were to share a poetry space together. One of NFSPS’s main objectives for hosting the slam was to encourage a younger and more diverse group of poets to participate in the work that they do, and it was exciting to see how eager they were to welcome us and learn from each other.
Before finals, the conference hosted a haiku slam that I attended. Similar to a poetry slam, a group of competitors faced off in one-on-one rounds, reading haikus and that were judged by random strangers selected from the crowd. It was a more lighthearted atmosphere and was also the first stage where participants from the other part of the conference were competing against our group of slam poets. Even though there weren’t many poets who competed, it was still a fun experience, and it was a wonderful way of keeping the stage warm and ready for finals.
Final stage was a treat. I had gotten a chance to either compete or watch bouts of most of the competing poets, but there were a handful who I hadn’t seen at all because of how the preliminary bout schedule worked out. I’ve been to finals in bigger auditoriums with louder audiences and more fanfare, but what I loved most was knowing that I had spent so much time getting to know most of the poets on stage and in the audience. When the three rounds finished and a winner was crowned, we were all so genuinely happy for one another and what we had all experienced together.
After the finals were over, we headed back to the host hotel and celebrated each other with an impromptu afterparty. Still high from the excitement of the performances, it was a night full of “you were awesome’s” and other warm affirmations.
Before I knew it, it was Sunday and the last day of our conference. Out of my entire week in Daytona Beach, the thing I was most grateful for was building friendships, especially with two poets that I had shared bouts with. On the last morning of the conference, as folks were packing their suitcases and saying their goodbyes, the three of us took a last walk on the beach. We watched and walked past the tide pushing and pulling against the sand. We reflected on the week and shared conversation about our art and our lives. After a long walk, we stopped for a break in the shade and shared poems we hadn’t yet heard from each other. We walked back to our hotel, eager to find ways for us to stay in touch after we got back home.
This is what I loved most about the slam, the understanding that there is so much more to slam than slamming. The hours we spend crafting and practicing our work. The nervous energy that builds inside of us before bouts. The workshops and discussions where we talk about how this art creates change. The friendships that come out of meeting folks who love what they do so much. I am reminded of a common refrain heard at slams, the points are not the point, the point is the poetry.
A few weeks after I returned, the League of Minnesota Poets invited me to perform at their Fall conference and it was a joy reflecting with the folks who had helped make my journey possible, many of whom were in the room at Icehouse and who were also present during my bouts in Daytona Beach, and I could feel it all coming full circle. Sharing conversations over dinner after my presentation, one of the poets expressed that these were such good people, and I couldn’t help but agree. I am grateful for all the good people I’ve come across doing slam.