art, non-profit, poetry slam

To Slam, With Love.

Last night I dropped by the Seattle Poetry Slam. It’s been more than ten years since I’ve had any formal affiliation with this show, and I don’t get to it nearly as often as I’d like. But, last night one woman reminded me of the brilliant gift that poetry open mikes offer us.

This woman read about choosing to come to the Slam last night, instead of going home after work. She told us about a deep, cruel depression she staved off, even just a few hours, by coming out and being among us. Her hands shook, her voice cracked. When she paused to hold back her tears, audience members from all corners of the room yelled up to her, “You got this.”


Poetry slams have been around since the mid-80s. It started as a gimmick: randomly chosen audience members in a bar score the poets 0-10, like figure skaters. The value given to the poet’s delivery has contributed, over time, to some people using “poetry slam” interchangeably with “spoken word” or “performance poetry.” Undeniably, performance is inherent to a slam.

Winning a slam feels good, it’s instant acceptance in a discipline dominated by stories of rejection letters. And if you don’t win, being well-received by people in the audience is pretty damn nice, too. Soon after my first Seattle slam in 1996, I became a part of the volunteer organizing team, and went on to emcee the weekly show for several years. When we produced a live recording CD in 1999, I had the privilege to write the liner notes. I talked of my pride in our poets, for their talent and their community spirit. I remember how much I loved poetry, and loved getting other people excited about it (I even had a signature cheer — the poetry cheer — that, in my excitement, I was prone to mixing up).

Unfortunately, with the highs were some lows. Poets are human, humans have egos, and sometimes our egos get in our own damn way. There were nights we started the show hours late because we didn’t have an audience. If a well-known poet was visiting from out of town, people would try hogging a little extra time on the open mike to show off for the guest. Basically, there can be some rock star behavior, and quieter poets, ones who aren’t seasoned performers, well, sometimes we overlook them. Last night, when the poet trembled, I worried for a moment her voice might get lost.

Then, someone called out, “You got this.”

And another, and another. I choked back tears with the poet. I needn’t have worried. This community’s got this. Even in the rough times, we got this. We rally support for those of us who are sick but uninsured. We send anonymous donations to a young poet’s widow, we visit each other in hospice, we buy each other’s books, we help each other get sober. Some of us fall in love and get married to each other, and another of us officiates the wedding.

Because you got this is we got you is we got each other.


About Depression.

It sucks. 1 in 10 Americans reports having depression. Every 18 minutes, someone dies from a suicide. Every 43 seconds, someone attempts one.

Call for help or hope 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-442-HOPE (4673).

Chat online with someone at IMAlive,

If you or someone you know is currently in danger, please dial 911 immediately.


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