Backstage at the Utah Arts Festival 2023: Three major poetry slams slated, with Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah represented

Poetry slams have become one of the most popular offerings at the Utah Arts Festival, to the extent that the festival venue could launch its own regional competition. This year, the territory covered includes Utah, Arizona, California and Nevada. 

There will be three major slam competitions: The Youth Individual Slam, The Adult Individuals and the Team Invitational. Both Individual Slams will be held on June 23 at the WordFest Stage (youth, starting at 6 p.m., and adult, starting at 8:30 p.m. One of the OGs in poetry slam from Utah, Jesse Parent, will serve as emcee.

On June 24 at 8 p.m. on the WordFest stage, The Team Invitational will feature six teams, three from Utah and the remainder from out of state. Representing Utah will be Plumas Colectiva, Butterfly Effect and the Youth Team of Sky Ridge High School. The visiting teams will be Spoken Views Collective (Reno), Ghost Poetry Show (Phoenix) and The Loud Mouth Poetry Jam (Visalia). Last year’s team winner was Salt Lake City Slam, with Plumas Colectiva taking second. This year’s team invitational is notable for including a high school team to compete with representatives of the professional community.

Butterfly Effect.

For the Adult Indie Slam, 12 competitors will participate, with five of the spots reserved for a single representative from the Invited Slam Teams (which they’ll determine at their own discretion). The remaining seven spots will be selected by random draw 30 minutes prior to the 8:30 p.m. starting time on June 23. Last year, Chris Ware (Phoenix) won first prize with Monarch the Poet (Las Vegas) taking second.

“This adds an element of excitement for both our competitors and audience to not know who they’ll be performing with until the actual start of the slam,” Michael Jasso, who is coordinating this year’s slam competitions, explains. “We are encouraging any local Utah poets, as well as visiting artists to register through our Google Doc form to enter their name in the random draw.” Jasso adds that poets who enter must have at least four poems prepared (in the event of a tiebreaker round). The random draw will take place at 8 p.m. but Jasso recommends that anyone interested should arrive early (even a half hour before) to ensure their consideration for being chosen.

Among the rules are time limits (three minutes with a 10-second grace allotment and five points are deducted for every 10 seconds afterward) and poets cannot use props, music or costumes. Five judges are recruited from the audience and use a 0-10 scoring system, with highest and lowest scores dropped. The format comprises three rounds with elimination (e.g., in the Individuals, all 12 compete in first round, and then top eight in second round and top four in the final round). Scores are reset after every round. For tiebreakers, the poets who are tied perform one more time with judges determining the winner.

Noting what The Utah Review explained last year, 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.

The Utah Review recaps some of the inside scoop on the dynamics of poetry slams from various teams, as they explained last year.

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: 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

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. 

Plumas Colectiva

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.

Spoken Views Collective

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 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. 

From 2022: Spoken Views Collective.

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!

For more information and tickets, download the Utah Arts Festival app for free, available to Android and iOS users. There also are links to the UAF’s standard website. 

from: Taco Bell (By Monica Lisette)

“He looks at me with a hunger in his eyes

Says he’s never had Mexican before

As if there’s not a Taco Bell down the street

As if I was just that

Wrapped in cheap paper

His for the taking

Not a person

But something to be devoured

To be conquered.”

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