By Sophia Holtz & Anonymous
Welcome! If you’re reading this, then you’ve made it to the National Poetry Slam 2017! That means it’s time to get excited! Those of you who are rookies (or simply members of the audience who have never seen a live poetry slam before, and may be asked to judge the poetry on stage) are probably thinking: Oh my god, I’m at the National Poetry Slam. Who are these people and what the hell is going on?
So here, for your benefit, is A Brief Guide to What the Hell is Going On, with some tips on how not to ruin everything for yourself (and everybody else):
For Audience Members
This may be a national event with a championship title on the line, but you matter way more than anybody talking into that mic tonight. We mean it—this poetry slam thing all started because we wanted to create a great new way for folks like you to love and connect with poetry. We wouldn’t be here without you guys. So thank you for coming, and have a great time! Here are some tips for the week:
DO listen, enjoy, and love the poetry and the poets. If you hear something that changes your life, your brain, your everything, then after the bout is finished, you should go and tell the poet how much you appreciate their work!
DO ask poets whose work you loved if they have any merchandise to sell. Many people will have chapbooks and CDs available for purchase, so that you can take some of their neuron-changing awesomeness home with you.
DO be raucous and excitable. Your host will tell you all about how much poets love immediate and audible reactions during their poems: applause, whoops of appreciation, the “ancestral grunt.” Poets get nervous up on stage, even if they’ve been doing this for years, so don’t be too shy about showing your support for the performers.
DON’T make distracting, not-related-to-poetry noises. Don’t chat up new friends at the bar. Don’t answer your cell phone (because you remembered to silence it BEFORE the bout, right?). Try not to have an unrelenting coughing fit.
DON’T take photos or videos of the poets if you don’t have a press pass AND have the permission of the performer. Secret filming is creepy and the organizers have arranged for professional filming already.
DON’T approach poets or coaches during the competition. They will have more time (and not to mention be much more fun to talk to) after the bout is done.
Lucky you! Somebody has handed you a whiteboard, and now you get to judge how this whole game goes down. Your host is going to explain the rules to you very quickly. Don’t be intimidated. It’s easy to be a really good judge if you just follow some simple guidelines:
BE CONSISTENT. This is actually the only thing you need to know in order to be a good judge. Let’s talk about something we call “score creep.” For some reason, judges have a tendency to give out higher and higher scores as the night goes by. But what if you heard the best poem of the whole night during the first round? Here’s an easy trick: when the sacrificial poet goes up, pay extra attention. Write down the score you gave them somewhere you can easily check, like in the corner of your whiteboard. From now on, every time a poet reads a poem, ask yourself: was it better than the sacrificial poet? If yes, higher score. If no, lower score. Easy, right?
DON’T get so drunk that you can’t understand the poetry. Are you blitzed? Pay extra attention. And maybe switch to soda for a few rounds.
DON’T let the audience intimidate you. Yes, the audience: the unwashed masses grumbling about those perfect scores you just aren’t shelling out. Remember, you’re the one with the marker!
DON’T get too focused on either performance OR poetry; remember that you are judging a performance art, and that the National Poetry Slam champions need both stellar writing skills AND great performance chops.
DON’T put appearance before art. Rate the poetry, not the poet!
DON’T forget to have a good time! You can take this whole judging thing as seriously as you want, but in the end, the poetry (and being moved by the poetry) is why we asked you to judge in the first place.
For New Competitors
Welcome to the National Poetry Slam! You and more than 300 of your brand-new best friends are about to be the talk of the town for an entire week. If you play this right, it could be the best time of your entire life…until you come back next year, of course. Here are some tips to help you have a great NPS:
DO share your poetry in cyphers. You can find these almost any place there are poets for the next couple of nights.
DO make new friends. Competitors, audience, staff, volunteers: all these people are here because they love poetry. How often do you get to hang out with this many people all at once who care about art? It’s a great chance to meet amazing folks you couldn’t have found without this crazy game we play.
DO practice good show etiquette: show up early for your bouts, listen to your bout manager, and don’t harass your hosts. Clap for everybody that gets up on that stage! Clap for people you’re bouting against! Don’t be nice, but do be kind!
DON’T be drunk and belligerent. Self control is nice, not to mention healthier for everyone.
DON’T get all wrapped up in the competition. Odds are (literally) that you will not make it to Finals, or even Semi-Finals. So rock your poem like you’re on Finals stage every night, and if your team is eliminated early, don’t forget to enjoy the other twenty-three hours and fifty seven minutes of awesomeness per day that NPS has to offer. Remember that the most important team is “Team Poet,” and everyone you meet this week is on that team, including you. If you take the time to really listen to the other poems in your bout, you are more likely to have a good time, learn more cool things about being alive, pick up some new tricks to try in your own work, and remember what poetry slam was created for: to make audiences (which includes you) listen to poetry.
For Returning Competitors
Welcome back! Now read the rookie advice. I bet you think that song isn’t about you. Well, it is.