This past weekend, 72 poets from across the country gathered to compete at the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam. As poets attended orientation, collected their badges, and followed their schedule to the right venue, we began to marvel at the hard work and dedication organizations like PSI (Poetry Slam, Inc.) have invested, in order to make such events memorable experiences for their participants. Spit Journal went behind the scenes to pay tribute to one of the most passionate organizations supporting the community of performance poetry. PSI Executive Director Suzi Q. Smith discusses the evolution of performance poetry and upcoming campaigns for PSI.
SPIT JOURNAL: As Executive Director for PSI (Poetry Slam Inc.), can you tell us how performance poetry has evolved over the years? And in what direction do you currently see it heading?
SUZI Q. SMITH: I think that over the years, poetry slam has helped to galvanize the energy of performance poetry and build a community around the art form. While the gaze of the public eye might change from one season to the next, the community of poets continues to celebrate the value of individual expression. While Allan Wolf’s quote, “The points are not the point; the point is poetry” is commonly shared at poetry slams, I think that the people, the gathering of these poets together, is the most important feature of slam.
SJ:On behalf of Spit Journal and every poet out there, we want to thank PSI and their hard work for making such epic slam events happen each year. I believe PSI is organized by seven primary Executive Council Members, can you tell us who are the current council members and what role do they play in PSI? We’d love to give a personal recognition shout out and thank you!
SMITH: PSi is made up of the Slammaster Council, the Executive Council, and one employee (me).
The Executive Council is:
Inkera Oshun – President
Christopher Michael – Vice President
Karen Garrabrant – Secretary
Cassie Poe – Treasurer
Mahogany Browne – Trustee
Will Evans – Trustee
Adriana Ramirez – Trustee
SJ: What other kinds of programs or activities does PSI promote in order to increase public and community awareness?
SMTIH: PSi will be launching a marketing campaign in the year to come, including a YouTube channel – stay tuned!
SJ: The 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam was such a tremendous success. What kind of preparations take place to organize such a huge event?
SMITH: All of our events take a great deal of planning between PSi’s Event Coordinator and the Host City team. From securing venues and sound systems and getting poets registered to creating t-shirts and finding the right hotel to reaching out to the local community to fill the seats, the details generally take 1-2 years of planning.
SJ: What would be your response to people who continue to argue that slam events are not considered an art form because they believe: 1) Random judges have little or no credibility to judge a poet’s creative work and craft, 2) How can any judge possibly score a poet’s performance on stage that carries so much vulnerability and emotion, and 3) Poetry is a creative form of expression not a competition.
SMITH: Judges being chosen randomly from the audience are at the heart of slam poetry; being able to reach the average person is our aim. They are, in fact, the only people qualified to decide what they enjoy and what moves them. Judging is an incredibly difficult job, and at the end of the night, the scores only represent those five people. What having judges does for a show is engage the audience in a way that is lively and immediate.
Check out the history of PSI that Suzi Q. Smith was gracious enough to provide.
Poetry Slam, Inc. was first officially proposed in August of 1996, at the Slam Family meeting in Portland, Oregon, though it had been talked about at the annual spring meeting for at least two years prior to that.
A corporate Charter and official bylaws worked their way into existence through several steps over the course of the next year. But, by official and unanimous acclimation, Poetry Slam, Inc. was brought to reality on August 9, 1997.
The Amended Articles of Incorporation identify the purposes for which the corporation is organized are:
Educational and literary purposes within the meaning of section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revue Code of 1986 including the following:
To advocate, promote, support, witness, and/or perpetuate the art of performance poetry.
To enhance the perception of literary merit and legitimacy of performance poetry as an art form.
To manage the international affairs of the National Poetry Slam community.
To protect the artistic and financial interests of the National Poetry Slam com- munity.
To promote and perpetuate the National Poetry Slam.
On November 9, 1999 Poetry Slam, Inc. became an official State of Illinois Charitable Trust and was granted permission to seek funds under the Solicitation for Charity Act in the state of Illinois.
On November 23, 1999, Poetry Slam, Inc. was granted official tax-exempt status under the Internal Revenue Service Code, retroactive to August 9, 1997, the day of our inception.
As an official tax-exempt organization, PSi can receive tax-exempt contribu- tions from anyone who pays United States income tax, and that’s just about everybody we know.
1984. Construction worker and poet Marc Smith starts a poetry reading series at a Chicago jazz club, the Get Me High Lounge, looking for a way to breathe life into the open mic poetry format. The series’ emphasis on performance lays the groundwork for the poetry which will be exhibited in slam.
1986. Smith approaches Dave Jemilo, the owner of the Green Mill (a Chicago jazz club and former haunt of Al Capone), with a plan to host a weekly poetry competition on the club’s slow Sunday nights. Jemilo welcomes him, and on July 25, the Uptown Poetry Slam is born. Smith draws on baseball and bridge terminology for the name, and institutes the basic features of the competition, including judges chosen from the audience and cash prizes for the winners. The Green Mill evolves into a Mecca for performance poets, and the Uptown Poetry Slam still continues 15 years after its inception.
1987. In August, Ann Arbor, MI starts a slam (the second oldest in the nation), with New York, San Francisco, and Fairbanks, AK following suit. The home of the New York slam, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the East Village, quickly becomes one of the best-known homes for slam.
1990. The first-ever national slam is held on October 18 in San Francisco, fea- turing four-person teams from Chicago and San Francisco and an individual poet from New York. The Chicago team wins the debut team competition, and Chicago’s Patricia Smith wins the individual competition.
1991. Chicago hosts a national competition featuring teams from eight cit- ies, including Boston, Cleveland, and the first-ever team from New York. Organizer Marc Smith coins the event National Poetry Slam. The Chicago team repeat as champions and premiere the first-ever group piece in Nationals competition. The three-minute time rule is introduced, including an on-stage clock, but Chicago poet and individual champion Lisa Buscani appeals to the audience to rescind the rule for the finals, and officials concur. While the three-minute rule remains in future years, the on- stage clock does not.
1992. 17 cities are represented at the Nationals in Boston by team or indi- vidual competitors; the first-ever Native American slam team is among the 12 teams competing. Boston wins – the second year in a row the host city has done so – and Patricia Smith, now competing for Boston, wins her second individual title. A documentary film is shot at the event, but is never released. Slam continues to grow nationally, largely due to ‘92 Nationals organizer Mi- chael Brown, who, along with Patricia Smith, spearhead the slam movement in the Northeast, and Asheville, NC’s Allan Wolf and Ginger West, who do similar groundbreaking in the Southeast.
1993. 23 teams compete in the Nationals in San Francisco, including the first teams from Canada (Victoria, B.C.) and Europe (Finland), as well as Ameri- can cultural hotbeds like Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. For the first time, the hosts produce a number of side events, including the haiku slam, the sonnet slam, the erotic reading, and midnight readings. The first on-air radio slam is held on Berkeley’s KPFA in conjunction with Nationals, and Nuyo/Imago Records releases the Best of Slam CD chronicling the competition. Boston and Patricia Smith repeat as champions.
1994. The fifth National Poetry Slam is held in Asheville, North Carolina, won by the Cleveland team and individual competitor Gayle Danley, representing Atlanta. Allan Wolf coins the phrase, “The points are not the point; the point is poetry,” which becomes one of the principal rallying cries for proponents of the movement. Meanwhile, poet and poetry organizer Juliette Torrez, currently based in San Francisco, coordinates the poetry stage for the Lollapalooza tour, exposing new audiences to contemporary spoken word performers. As a result, a number of slams start up, particularly in the South- west and on the West Coast.
1995. Ann Arbor hosts the largest Nationals to date. 27 teams participate, including newcomers like Austin, Dallas, Detroit, Athens, GA, Key West, FL, and Albuquerque. Organizers Steve and Deb Marsh introduce several innovations, including computerized scoring and the three-team bout, a departure from the head-to-head competition of previous National Poetry Slams. Asheville, NC wins the team competition, before a then-record crowd of nearly 1300, on the strength of well-crafted group pieces. In the individual competition, Boston’s Patricia Smith wins her fourth title in six years.
1996. Filmmaker Paul Devlin brings a documentary crew to the Nationals in Portland to shoot SlamNation, which will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival two years later. The competition brings the largest crowds to date for a Nationals – over 3,000 people during the four days of competition. 27 teams compete, with Providence winning Nationals after finishing in last place the year before. Patricia Johnson, representing Roanoke, VA, wins the individual championship.
1997. Nationals are held in Middletown, CT. 33 teams compete, including a team from Sweden and two Canadian teams. The Mouth Almighty team, a New York-based team named for the spoken word record label sponsoring them, wins the team competition. Taylor Mali, captain of the Mouth Almighty team and the previous year’s Providence team, wins his second straight Na- tionals, and becomes legendary in the slam community for his attention to strategy. In the individual competition, Cleveland’s Boogie Man becomes the first man to win the individual title.
1998. The documentary SlamNation (focusing on finalist teams from New York, Providence, Berwyn, IL, and Austin at the ‘96 Nationals) premieres at the Sundance Film Festival, and garners critical attention that includes posi- tive reviews from the New York Times and the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert. The Nationals, held in Austin, bring a record 45 teams into competi- tion, including 13 first-time teams. Members of the national media, includ- ing writers from Time and the Wall Street Journal and a camera crew from CNN/Entertainment Weekly, converge on Austin to give the slam its highest- profile media treatment to date. New York edges Dallas to win its first-ever team championship, and Chicago’s Reggie Gibson, whose work is promi- nently featured in the quasi-autobiographical 1997 movie Love Jones, wins the individual title.
1999. Poetry Slam, Inc. files for official non-profit status as the umbrella or- ganization for slam, as the number of certified slams in North America reach- es 75. The 10th Annual Nationals are held in Chicago, featuring 48 teams, and is chronicled by such media notables as the New York Times and 60 Minutes. For the first time in slam history, a New York poet, Roger Bonair-Agard, wins the individual championship. Nationals history is also made when two teams – San Francisco and San Jose – slam to the first-ever first-place tie. Rather than compete in a tiebreaker round, the teams decide to share the title. In front of the largest crowd to ever witness a poetry slam championship (over 2000), the championship trophy, made from a pair of boxing gloves and a stack of books spray-painted gold, is torn in half on stage at Marc Smith’s behest. Earlier in the day, Smith has announced he will take a leave of absence from his leader- ship role as President of PSi’s Executive Council, noting that the organization behind slam is now strong enough to maintain slam without his hands-on involvement as a leader.
2000. Under the direction of Gary Glazner, PSi launches the first-ever Slam- America bus tour, which brings poetry shows to 32 cities across the nation in the month leading up to Nationals. The tour, sponsored by Grand Marnier, involves over 100 poets (most of them participating in four or five-city legs of the tour), and generates coverage in nearly 50 media outlets, including Newsweek, the Dallas Morning News, and the Voice of America Network. Tazuo Yamaguchi, longtime volunteer videographer for PSi assembles hun- dreds of hours of video of the tour, which ultimately becomes a feature length documentary, Busload of Poets.
The National Poetry Slam, in Providence, involves 56 teams, and adopts the four-team bout structure for the entire competition. New York City sends three teams; all three make the finals, with the team from the Urbana series edging the rookie San Antonio team by a tenth of a point to win the title. Shane Koczyan, from Vancouver, BC, becomes the first Canadian poet to win the indie title.
2001. The 12th National Poetry Slam, held in Seattle, draws audience num- bers rivaling the record numbers of Chicago, with the Dallas team becoming the first Texas team to win Nationals. Mayda del Valle, from the Nuyorican team, becomes the first Latina to win an individual title, and the first woman to win indies in five years. Def Poets, an HBO series produced by hip-hop legends Russell Simmons and Mos Def, premieres. Some of the series’ stand- out poets, including Kalamazoo, MI’s Dawn Saylor, LA’s Shihan, and New York’s Beau Sia and Taylor Mali, show off the skills they have honed in local and national slams. Gary Glazner and Aaron Yamaguchi’s documentary on the SlamAmerica bus tour debuts at the Santa Fe Film Festival.
2002. Marc Smith announces his “un-retirement” from his leadership role and returns to PSi as its President for Life. PSi takes a greater hands-on approach with NPS 2002 in Minneapolis, MN and is rewarded with the most smoothly run nationals in years. PSi asserts its rights in regard to the show and puts hundreds of hours of digital video and audio on tape and CD. Another tie for first place in the team competition leaves the title shared between NYC-Ur- bana and Detroit/Hamtramck. No trophy is torn in half as it was constructed of solid oak and welded steel by Bill Macmillan, SlamMaster from Worcester and museum curator of armor. The teams agree to share the trophy for six months each. Membership in PSi swells to over 500 poets in seven countries. PSi asserts its rights in regard to the show and under the direction of long-time volunteer, Gabrielle Bouliane, puts hundreds of hours of digital video and audio on tape and CD. Tazuo Yamaguchi assembles and edits the first of the World’s Greatest Poetry Slam video series.
2003. PSi receives its first NEA grant in support of NPS 2003 to be held in Chicago. Local venue certification breaks records in both number and distri- bution with over 100 local Slams supported in eight different nations. NPS is held in Chicago again, this time with a record 63 teams in attendance neces- sitating a late change in both format and structure for the tournament. Team Los Angeles wins the team trophy while San Jose’s Mike McGee takes in- dividual honors. Scott Woods compiles and edits the first ever NPS Poetry Anthology which is released with a companion CD by Ann Arbor based The Wordsmith Press in Spring of 2003.
2004. Continued growth presents internal challenges. Marc Smith re-retires and is named to the official post of Founder. PSi initiates its first ever Indi- vidual World Poetry Slam in Greenville, SC in February. Poets from around the world are invited and the first ever iWPS Individual Champion is named. Buddy Wakefield of Seattle takes the honors. PSi hosts its first ever instruc- tional event called Poetry Cross Training Conference at SUNY Oneonta in New York. National Poetry Slam is held in St. Louis with a record 69 teams in attendance and where team Los Angeles, having renamed itself Team Hol- lywood repeats as NPS Champ and Sonya Reneé from Washington, DC be- comes the individual champion.
2005. Begins propitiously with iWPS in the snowy climes of Worcester, MA. Buddy Wakefield repeats as World Champion after claiming the World Slam- pionship title in Rotterdam the previous summer, thus unifying the world title. National Poetry Slam comes to Albuquerque, NM and for the first time since 1993 the “Home Team” wins the title. Individual honors are shared between Anis Mojani and Janean Livingston.
2006. Starts like a NASCAR racer in Charlotte, NC where PSi crowns a pre- vious NPS champion as the newest World Poetry Champion: Mike McGee from the largest field of poets representing 7 different nations from Europe, North America and Asia. NPS is hosted by Austin, TX the previous host of the 1998 NPS but this time with 75 teams, the most ever at a poetry event of any kind that we know of. Team Denver won the National Poetry Slam. Anis Mojgani was the NPS individual champion.
2007. iWPS goes international by being the first event PSi has ever hosted outside of the United States. It is in Vancouver BC Canada. NPS is hosted again in Austin, TX, the first time NPS has been hosted by the same city two consecutive years. Poetry Cross Training Conference completes its third year and its balance sheet finishes in the black for the first time. Slam Charlotte won the National Poetry Slam. Danny Sherrard was the NPS individual champion. The iWPS champion was Ed Mabrey.
2008. In the Spring of 2008 the first ever Women of the World Poetry Slam is held with only women competitors and officials in the city Detroit, MI. Organizers receive the Spirit of Detroit Award from City government. Poetry Cross Training Conference faces its fourth year at SUNY Oneonta in June. NPS will be co-hosted by Milwaukee and Madison, WI with the physical hosting taking place in Madison. iWPS will be brought back inside the United States to Charlotte, NC in December. The first ever winner of the Women of the World poetry slam was Andrea Gibson.
2009. WOWps was another huge success in Detroit, MI. Poetry Cross Train- ing Conference begins to look at additional locations in the US. NPS will be hosted by West Palm Beach in August. iWPS will move to the West Coast in Berkeley, CA in the fall.