Written by Carrissa Davis.
Images by Carrissa Davis (unless otherwise credited).
I walked into Spiderhouse at 7:03pm, one Tuesday night, to attend the Austin Poetry Slam. I sat in an empty chair amidst rows of empty chairs, early enough to stare at my phone in nervous trepidation. The chairs soon began to fill up quickly, with groups of friends or couples. I floated above the chatter, wondering if people were noticing that I came alone.
After almost an hour of self-consciously scrolling through twitter, I began talking to the girl next to me and she told me her name was Courtney.
“My grandma took me to one for the first time, just cause she thought it’d be something that I would enjoy… I’d never been to something like that before,” Courtney said. “Once I went, I was so impressed by how talented the poets were,” she continued. “Just from that one really great experience, I wanted to keep going.”
“All of my experiences since then have been just as amazing, so that’s why I try to go as much as I can.”
This preceded an amazing night. The MC, a very pregnant black woman, walked onto the stage. She had incredible charisma and infectious enthusiasm. She began by explaining the rules of the slam.
The poets have three minutes to perform an original poem with no props or musical accompaniment. Judges in the audience rate the poems on a scale of 1.0-10.0 (with 1.0 being Donald Trump, and 10.0 being Beyonce). The scores are added together and the poets with the highest scores move on to the next round.
I didn’t know that the poems would be rated, and it made me nervous. I wouldn’t want to have my artistic expression rated on a scale of 1-10. But the room filled with a resounding roar of applause while the first poet walked up to the microphone. Everything was quiet for just a second, and then the poet began.
A poet named Kelley took to the mic with a poem about poetry slams and how they facilitate emotional closeness between poets and the audience.
“My friend said I looked like a palm tree, bending in the hurricane of my words.”
I had no trouble understanding what she meant. A poem about sexual assault filled me with the poet’s rage. A poem about coming out mirrored my own experience, piercing me like glass. A poem about the death of the poet’s brother made me ache for my own brother back at home. Some poems were rated higher than others, but combined with the energy of the venue, every poet and poem overwhelmed me for their allotted three minutes.
“The best thing will become the worst thing if you don’t want it,” said a poet named Shawnin. “My life sometimes becomes the worst thing because I can’t figure out how to want it.”
Similar thoughts have echoed in my own head before, and when spoken aloud, they felt monumental.
The excitement clung to the walls until the winners were announced. Then the winners hugged and the entire venue celebrated. Though I was skeptical about the contest portion of the event at first, thinking it might cheapen the art, I learned that the poets themselves held no such reservations.
“It’s always very friendly… and it’s cool that it has rounds, so you can hope that your favorite ones get up. And if they do get to the next round, that’s always fun, because you get to see them go more than once,” Courtney said.
Afterwards, I got a chance to talk to one of the poets who had performed that night. Ricky has been writing poetry for six years and made the switch to slam poetry three years ago.
“I felt like the stuff I was writing was different from what other people are doing… like I could definitely inspire/motivate others to perform or write, because I’m really supportive of new writers, new voices,” Ricky said.
He described writing poetry as a venting process.
“When I’m feeling something, I write and I write and I write until I’m empty,” he said. “It definitely helps me work through a lot of my emotions.”
By voicing his feelings, Ricky found a connection with the people at Spiderhouse.
“[Poetry] helped me initially to work through my own emotions, and then other people started relating to that,” he said. “And I wanted to help them work through their emotions with me.”
The Austin Poetry Slam cultivates a space where poets can share their art, vent their feelings, and connect with others. The people in Spiderhouse may vary from week to week, but the supportive community is unwavering. The competition allows poets and audience members to connect over the sentiments of the poems, and even by myself, I felt welcome in the community of poets and patrons.