Backstage at the Utah Arts Festival 2022: With individual, team poetry slams back in full force, an inside look at how teams prepare for invitationals

0
134

With the Utah Arts Festival back at full steam, one of its most popular literary arts offerings (and most competitive) also returns to full bloom for the first time in three years. This year’s poetry slam offerings includes individual and team invitationals with prizes at the youth and professional level as well as performances by individual and team slam poets. 

Poetry slams succeed at the festival because every artist is ambitious with adrenaline flowing abundantly to demonstrate that poetry is not an opaque art form but one that always is relevant, urgent, accessible and even revolutionary in language and form.

The first day of the festival features six youth poets from some of Utah’s most active high schools for poetry slams including Kearny, Copper Hills and Skyridge (June 23, Wordfest Stage, 6 p.m.). Winners of the youth indie slams will receive a $100 cash prize for first  place and $50 for second. This will be followed by the young team poetry slam (June 23, Wordfest Stage, 7:30 p.m.), where six teams will compete for bragging rights and cash prizes, including $300 for first place and $100 for second place.

The professional team invitational poetry slam (June 24, Wordfest Stage, 8 p.m.) brings six teams: Spotlight Poetry (Las Vegas), Ghost Poetry Show (Phoenix), Spoken Views Collective (SVC) (Reno), O-Town Dream Team (Ogden), Plumas Colectiva (South Jordan) and Salt Lake City Slam (SLC). Prizes include $400 for first place and $200 for second place.

The professional individual poetry slam (June 25, Wordfest Stage, 8 p.m.) will feature six poets on the final slam competition of the festival, with cash prizes of $100 for first place and $50 for second place 

Several competing teams also will perform out side of the competition  (Plumas Colectiva, June 23, Wordfest Stage, 3 p.m.; Spotlight Poetry, June 25, Wordfest Stage, 7 p.m.: Salt Lake City Slam, June 26, Wordfest Stage, 6 p.m.; O-Town Dream Team, June 26, Wordfest Stage, 7:30 p.m.)

What might surprise audience members is how individual poets as well as teams compete in the art of poetry slams. While on the surface it seems spontaneous and extemporaneous, in fact, it involves a lot of strategy of sequencing as well as rehearsing, memorizing and capitalizing on strengths of delivery, rhythm and cadence and topical expertise. Several of the teams who are participating in the Utah Arts Festival answered questions via email from The Utah Review about the experience of preparing and participating in poetry slam competitions.

Ghost Poetry Show

TUR: Collectively and individually, how do the team and members rehearse and prepare for invitationals?

Individually, it is common for a poet to record themselves and then play it back while repeating the poem out loud like singing a line to a song in the case of memorization. As far as collectively, the team members that are performing a group piece together practice just like a sports team or actors in a theater performance would practice. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Once the poet or poets feels comfortable with the piece, the next step would be to share it on stage. Occasionally, there are elements of a piece that need fine-tuning which are only brought to light in front of others. In summary, practice by yourself or with team members as well as practice on stage to be fully prepared for invitationals. 

TUR: While to some audience members it might seem spontaneous or created on the spot, artists prepare materials, rehearse and refine them continuously, knowing when they are ready to be performed. Would love to get individual perspectives about the artistic process and how one decides when a piece is ready for invitational competitions.

Although the best poets may seem as if their performance was spontaneous or improvised, from our experience they do work very hard to perfect their pieces. The best way to decide what pieces to take to an invitational competition is to take pieces that do well locally. Whether that be open mics or local slams, crowd reactions and judges scores can easily let a post know when they are on the right track. Writing poetry is such a solo endeavor that sharing is the only way to know if it also resonates with a wider audience beyond themselves. 

TUR: There is such a breadth and depth of topical perspectives in teams, how do you line up strategically and decide the sequence to gain the greatest impact in a team invitational event?

If luck is on our side, we’d prefer to go later in round one. That way, we can see what the crowd reacts positively to. All the poets on the team have poems prepared for different crowds. Sometimes the crowd wants funny, or sad, or uplifting and the poet has to read the room if given that opportunity. As far as the order for the team, it depends on a few factors. It could simply be a poet is really feeling good about performing that night and wants to take the lead. Maybe it’s a relevant topic that a poet wants to lead with. Another factor is not doing 3 sad poems in a row and then having a funny poem or vice versa. The team doesn’t want to fall into a category of being the funny team, or sad team, etc. Showing depth as far as topics and styles can benefit and show how well rounded a team is. 

TUR: One of the most remarkable aspects for me is observing how a team syncs up its rhythms in performing their work? Memorization appears to be an important criterion, for example. Likewise, capturing the right emotion and tone is a skill that is cultivated. Your experiences and insights on this process would be appreciated.

From our experience, memorized pieces in general perform better for the judges. That’s not to say that someone can’t win by reading off their phone or notebook but memorized pieces connect differently with the audience. If a piece is memorized, the barrier of a phone or piece of paper comes down and the performer can then connect with the audience in a deeper way. More eye contact can be had with audience members when the poet doesn’t have to glance down for the next line. Memorization isn’t the only piece of the puzzle to succeed in slam poetry. If a poet can share their personal experience in a relatable way and hit on emotions that many people understand, that can shine through with judges and crowd reactions. There is nothing wrong with writing that hyper-specific poem about an experience that a poet has, however it might not translate with the judges and it is a competition after all. 

TUR: What do you consider to be the most significant aspect, criterion or trait for a team to succeed at invitationals?

The most important trait for a team to succeed is all members being team players. Like mentioned previously, poetry is, for the most part (outside of team events), a solo event. If poets can leave their egos at the door for team events and realize they are representing their city or local community, that is a very good place to start for a team to succeed. Team invitationals are unique in that poets that have a unique voice or style now have to come together and write/perform with poets that do things differently than them. Preparing then becomes a puzzle to piece together the poets that can naturally work together or contrast each other in a way that they can create something new and beautiful together. 

Plumas Colectiva

Plumas Colectiva

TUR: Collectively and individually, how do the team and members rehearse and prepare for invitationals?

No secret sauce here. The work is the work. We give each other writing prompts.  Critique drafts.  Prioritize truth-telling, craft, and play.  Repeat lines over and over to memorize them.  Rehearse when we can.  Most of all, have fun.  

TUR: While to some audience members it might seem spontaneous or created on the spot, artists prepare materials, rehearse and refine them continuously, knowing when they are ready to be performed. Would love to get individual perspectives about the artistic process and how one decides when a piece is ready for invitational competitions.

We practice them in front of one another and test them out at community open mics and slams.  Plumas Colectiva is an important space to see how pieces hit for the people that matter.  Low stakes community events let you know how they got for general audiences. 

TUR: There is such a breadth and depth of topical perspectives in teams, how do you line up strategically and decide the sequence to gain the greatest impact in a team invitational event?

For us, it was easy.  All our pieces are dope so sequencing is a matter of just deciding what statements we wanted to begin and end on with the flexibility to feel out a crowd.  We want to give our members newest to slam a warm welcoming, so we’re having slam vets shoulder the most high pressure opening and closing slots. In general, the strategic and competitive nonsense is generally where the art becomes most toxic and boring. Poetry matters most when it’s written and delivered to the audience that matters most and that’s most likely not a bunch of drunk randos.

TUR: One of the most remarkable aspects for me is observing how a team syncs up its rhythms in performing their work? Memorization appears to be an important criterion, for example. Likewise, capturing the right emotion and tone is a skill that is cultivated. Your experiences and insights on this process would be appreciated.

Memorization is totally optional. There’s great performers out there who don’t memorize.  What matters most is being connected to your work and the audacity to believe it matters for others.  Poetry slams are notorious for loud explosive pieces that don’t really say much. But there are many ways of creating powerful connections with your audiences. The best start with vulnerability and truth telling. 

TUR: What do you consider to be the most significant aspect, criterion or trait for a team to succeed at invitationals?

It all determines how you define success.  If you wanna win, probably do some group pieces, tackle current events with strong writing and performances. If your goal is to make people laugh or to help make a lonely kid feel seen in a good way, it’ll be different.  It depends on your goals. Plumas Colectiva reps Latinx communities and our goal is to showcase our craft, individuality,  truth, and excellence.  It’s not just about winning.  It’s about winning by showing the beauty of our experiences and showing everyone our community is an essential part of the cultural milieu of Utah and needs to be reckoned with more fully.  

Spoken Views Collective.

Spoken Views Collective

TUR: Collectively and individually, how do the team and members rehearse and prepare for invitationals?

Collectively we get together as a team and rehearse our team pieces and share our individual pieces for feedback and workshopping. Individually, it might look a little different from person to person, but we all practice memorization and performance on our own time. I do think putting yourself on stage at open mics and/or setting up a feature performances to get that live on stage practice is vital, the audience aspect definitely can be a factor on one’s performance. 

TUR: While to some audience members it might seem spontaneous or create don the spot, artists prepare materials, rehearse and refine them continuously, knowing when they are ready to be performed. Would love to get individual perspectives about the artistic process and how one decides when a piece is ready for invitational competitions.

For myself, I write as often as I can and sometimes a poem might develop into a “slam worthy” piece. Recently I have enjoyed writing more short form poems but if I can get two to three minutes out of a piece then it might be considered for a slam competition . The next step would be to practice it, try it at open mics, get feedback from the audience, and my fellow collective members. Initially, I don’t always memorize a poem until I know I want to use it for a performance/slam. I also study slam culture and consider the topics and approaches and look at my own work in terms of fitting into what might work and what might not. That’s my personal take, it definitely might manifest differently for others. 

TUR: There is such a breadth and depth of topical perspectives in teams, how do you line up strategically and decide the sequence to gain the greatest impact in a team invitational event?

To be honest, our collective is still fairly new to the team slam competitions, let alone invitational events, but we do have a few members with experience that have shared their insight. From what I’ve seen and experienced, I think the best approach is for the individual poets on the team to have their own catalogue of slam pieces (the more, the better). It’s important for the team to know of each other’s poems and then to have a loose plan on what pieces would work best. Things can change when the competition starts however, we can decide as group what poems would work best based on the other team performances and also how the judges are scoring. It’s also important to invest in some team/group pieces – those usually have the biggest impact when executed correctly. 

TUR: One of the most remarkable aspects for me is observing how a team syncs up its rhythms in performing their work? Memorization appears to be an important criterion, for example. Likewise, capturing the right emotion and tone is a skill that is cultivated. Your experiences and insights on this process would be appreciated.

I’m not clear if this is directed to only team pieces but if so, team pieces can be tricky, but in many cases, it’s a good idea to have one primary writer and then work as a team to flush it out and maybe add some individual aspects to it. It is is possible to bring all writing styles into a piece and make it work but it takes a few meetings on arrangement and lots of discussions about piecing it together. I think the success comes from a lot of feedback/ workshopping and practice rehearsing, and honestly, that is the key to slam poetry pieces whether individual or team. 

TUR: What do you consider to be the most significant aspect, criterion or trait for a team to succeed at invitationals?

Of course strong leadership and supporting each other with the process of writing, editing and performing contribute to a teams success but I don’t really believe success has to come with winning or necessarily high scores, after all we are being judged by complete strangers. I would say, just enjoying the togetherness of being a team, sharing the experience and being present and supportive to each other is where the success happens. If everyone can take something positive from a slam competition and the team  can leave in high spirits, then that makes the experience well worth it! 

Spotlight Poetry

Spotlight Poetry 

TUR: Collectively and individually, how do the team and members rehearse and prepare for invitationals?

Spotlight Poetry’s rehearsal process combines both educational studies and performance practice. We were very fortunate enough to have a rehearsal space provided by Suite 150, a local event/creative space in the heart of the Las Vegas Arts District. Our team would meet once a week from 5p-8p. We start rehearsals with a vocabulary quiz. Beginning of our season I gave each member a vocabulary book and I would give them sections to study to help them build their vocabulary. It was important to me that the poets I am coaching always continue to develop themselves as writers. That means they know that this craft requires one to fall in love with the art of studying. Whether it’s studying new vocabulary words or reading different types of literature, you have to put in the after-hours to expand your poetic palette. After the quiz then I teach a lesson on different forms of writing or ways to perform on the stage. Which all leads to a writing prompt at the end of the session and the last hour we hold space for the poets to perform their works. 

TUR: While to some audience members it might seem spontaneous or created on the spot, artists prepare materials, rehearse and refine them continuously, knowing when they are ready to be performed. Would love to get individual perspectives about the artistic process and how one decides when a piece is ready for invitational competitions.

For me, I like to test my poems out at open mics and to friends before I take them to competitions. Open mics are a great space to see how the audience is connecting to the material you’ve provided. I tell my poets that open mics are the best spaces to not be afraid to experiment. Fail as many times as you can because that is the only way we truly learn. Go out of your comfort zone and permit yourself to step into the poem’s full glory. Never give up on your poems. 

TUR: There is such a breadth and depth of topical perspectives in teams, how do you line up strategically and decide the sequence to gain the greatest impact in a team invitational event?

It’s funny because I don’t think people realize that outside of the performance side of Slams, there also lies strategy. Without giving up too much on team strategies, I can say that I coach my poets that the goal  at the end of the day is to connect with one person in the room. Let the poem live in this moment. More technically speaking I tell my poets to always have a backup plan in the event the poet before you performs a poem about the same content you are about to perform. 

TUR: One of the most remarkable aspects for me is observing how a team syncs up its rhythms in performing their work? Memorization appears to be an important criterion, for example. Likewise, capturing the right emotion and tone is a skill that is cultivated. Your experiences and insights on this process would be appreciated.

I created a method this year that looks at how we can annotate our poems for performance. I believe there are two types of annotation in poetry. We have the OG method that a lot of academics use to study others’ works and then there is the method of looking at how the poem is performed on the stage. How the poem breathes and moves through our physical bodies. I tell my poets to look at the intention of their piece first. Once we discover what that is it becomes the anchor for the rest of the process. If the poet is confused about if they should keep a certain line in their piece or if this tone isn’t working for their poem, go back and ask yourself does this align with the intention of the poem. We also look at incorporating different beats and tones in our poems. I grew up in the theatre and I merged the acting/performance techniques I learn in college with my slam poetry. In some ways performing slam poetry is just reciting a monologue that you are the author of. With the annotation method, I created we use it to break our poems down to build a stronger performance when we hit the stage. 

TUR: What do you consider to be the most significant aspect, criterion or trait for a team to succeed at invitationals?

The most important criterion I think is you need to have a team that has a dedicated passion for this art form. I’ve been a full-time artist for almost two years now and nothing about it is glamorous. It requires a lot of patience and discipline. To have a strong team you need other individuals who share these same traits. Your passion needs to be strong enough to remind you on the bad days why you do this. Why you live for this. I’m very grateful that we have a collective of individuals who not only truly love this art form, but also have a lot of love for one another. 

Leave a Reply