Utah Arts Festival 2021: Indie, team poetry slams, always an audience favorite, return to Literary Arts stage

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No doubt, the pandemic dampened the momentum for nourishing Utah’s already healthy appetite for poetry as an oral art form. But, despite this year’s slimmer, shorter Utah Arts Festival, slam poetry competitions for individuals and teams — among the biggest audience draws for the festival’s Literary Arts stage — are back. Coordinator Dorothy McGinnis says preliminaries and finals will be held over two days, with an indie competition featuring 10 performers (Aug. 27, 10 p.m.) and four teams of four poet performers each competing the following day (Aug. 28, 9 p.m.).

McGinnis says the slam poetry scene is set to roar back to life in SLC as open mic nights and monthly shows return. “The poets are like bears coming out of hibernation,” she says. “It’s really exciting to be in front of a microphone for so many of them. The local folks barely spared a breath to say yes to the opportunity.” For many of the performers, this will be the first formal poetry slam in Salt Lake City since before the pandemic.

While the team competition will not feature any out-of-state participants this year, McGinnis says the local representation will thrill audiences. SLC’s scene for poetry slams is dynamic with heavy hitters on the scene including Jesse Parent and R.J. Walker along with a fresh generation of performers, many who are barely just out of high school. Some of the performers this year include graduates of the high school classes of 2020 and 2021. The surge in youth talent is evident, thanks to programs such as those at Copper Hills High School, which has been at the forefront of the movement for aspiring high school poets and monologists. There is now a Utah High School Poetry Slam Invitational, which was temporarily disrupted by the pandemic. Steve Haslam, a language arts teacher at Copper Hills High School, led efforts to have the Utah High School Activity Association (UHSAA), the sponsoring authority for athletic and fine arts activities in all Utah high schools. sanction such competitions as a formal academic sport. Thirty schools are needed to meet the statewide threshold.

Salt City Unified Team. 2018. 4th place, nationals in Chicago, best finish ever for an SLC team.

Poetry slam competitions are fast-paced thrillers. Participants have three minutes and cannot use props. Their work must be original so no plagiarism. Judging has its own unique character, if one compares it to how high school debate competitions are scored. McGinnis explains this means that the ideal judge knows nothing about what they are about to hear and are not considered experts in the art and form of slam poetry. The scoring is on a 1-10 scale, with the highest and lowest scores dropped. If previous festival slam poetry competitions are the true yardsticks, the scores deciding the winner nearly always end up very close, even by just a handful of points or fractions of a point. 

Poetry slams open the door wide to every available topic, including sex, politics, entertainment, culture or even mundane routines of daily existence. McGinnis believes this year might generate some “weird poems” arising from long periods of lockdown or self-isolation where people might over contemplate a point. Nostalgia also could be a likely driver of theme for many participants.

Poetry slams have become a Utah Arts Festival staple, thanks to how Salt Lake City has matured into a worthy, desirable destination to practice and perfect an art form that sprawls across various forms of storytelling and literary expression. 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 is always relevant, urgent, accessible and even revolutionary in language and form. Slams are essentially the word form of boxing bouts.

Photo Credit: Lee Chapman

Audiences will note that competition rosters include performers from the three stages being represented in this year’s Literary Arts program. For more information about all events, see the Utah Arts Festival website. Ticket information can be found here.

INDIE ROSTER

1. Wynter Storm

2. Jayrod Garrett

3. Tayven Wellington

4. Melissa Salguero

5. Enan Oscar Whitby

6. Sammi Walker

7. Ryan Joseph Carter

8. Megan Green

9. Monica Ayala

10. Lark Alexander

TEAM SLAM ROSTERS

Salt City 1:

Jesse Parent

Carelyn Brazelton

RJ Walker

Melissa Salguero

Salt City 2:

Lark Alexander

Mama Deb

Enan Oscar Whitby

Lewis Westbrooke

Salt City 3:

Sammi Walker

Chelsea Guevara

Nan Seymour

Harper Jude 

Ogden Slam:

Jayrod Garrett

Angelika Brewer

Rees Sweeten 

Wynter Storm

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