On Saturday, for the second year in a row, I came second at the New Zealand National Poetry Slam Finals.
How pleased am I with that result?!
Not very. 😱
Now wait a moment before shoving me off the ledge of conclusions; conflating that with a lack of pride or gratefulness and allow me to explain... I fully appreciate what an honour it is to get to share my work on a national stage and I treat it with the gravitas it deserves. I totally respect the folks that built that stage and thank them for their hard work. And I have deep pride in what I do - and have had long before I ever entered a slam. My poetry is authentically, emotionally, morally and philosophically true to me and my experiences. It is years of honed and dedicated crafting, learning, respect and joy for the warm, malleable liquidity and cold, solid, unforgiving nature of words - I love, live and choke on poetry!
So whilst I enjoy Slams, I try my absolute most not to place my pride and self-worth in the hands of five randomly selected audience members who may or may not have even seen spoken word poetry before - and neither should anyone. (Note: I say “try” and “should” because it is easy to fall foul of this - it hurts when someone doesn’t like/ fully get/ feel a piece that you have spent time carefully incubating, nurturing, building layers of meaning into, crafting rhythm and dynamics to compliment the tone, editing, rehearsing and working up the courage to speak.) It takes a long time to build the thickness of skin to deflect such things - I have served that time and I cannot deny - it still pierces a little when it occurs.
But... on Saturday night, I am not ashamed to say, I SLAAAAAYED! So at the same time as not being exactly “pleased” with second place - I am extremely pleased with myself!
Could I have done with the first place prize money? Yep!
Would the title have made for an easier career path that I would totally capitalise on? For sure!!
Do I feel I deserved it? Absofreakinlutely!!!
But will not getting first place stop me? HELL NO!
I should just add: this is in no way a commentary on the other poets’ deservedness or not - that was for the audience members who offered themselves up as judges, to decide on the night. I’m actually not even going to mention the other poets in this post - not to say that they are not worth mentioning, far from it - there was some great work on display - it’s just I signed up to be a competitor that evening, not a judge and if I’m going to venture there then I’d need to rewatch all twenty or so other poems again, with a clear mind and a whole lot of time... and this will become a dissertation, not a blog post!
For now I write from a purely personal and self-analytical stance of my own performance and experience. So if you’re interested in that, read on:
First round, I copped an unfortunate draw, going up second (out of twelve poets). Those who know slam, understand that getting pulled up early in rounds is tough! So I decided to go in firing with a new piece called “Which?”. It relays the true story of a heteronormatively-obsessed drunk guy outside a bar harassing me and my friend about our appearance and asking “Which one of [us] is the man and which one is the woman?” It explores the ridiculousness of gender-stereotyping and translates the actual questions behind asking such a thing. Ultimately, I did a decent performance of it - perhaps a little more rushed than I would ideally like and with a slight stumble on one word - funnily enough, the word was “masculinity” - I guess it metaphorically and literally will never sit comfortably with me! Haha - so not perfect but still damn strong! It scored a high of 10 and a low of 7.sumthin (which is quite a spread!). I believe the others settled around the 9.sumthins. So despite most of the scores being high, I couldn’t help but be perturbed by the lowest one (typical!)... my mind mused: perhaps they had more in common with the guy questioning in the poem than the protagonist... or perhaps it was too early in the night... or maybe they just didn’t like the piece... or queers 😉... who knows?! But I mentally marked them as a potential problem for the evening’s scores.
Anyway, I got through to the second round, with six other poets, where I had a much friendlier order draw - this time, towards the end of the round (maybe even last? Can’t quite remember). I performed “Satisfied” - a piece of mine exploring the institutionalised prejudices that are “cut” into us from a young age and analysing the lasting bruises that are perpetuated and passed on when we don’t question our own privileged positions that allow us to be blind to that subjugation - even relying on it to maintain our own comfort and sense of satisfaction.
I *think* I scored the highest in that round, which again fits if you know how key order can be in a slam - for those that don’t, generally speaking: even if you have a kick ass poet kill it at the start of a round, if you have an equally kick ass poet kill it at the end of the round - it is more likely the poet at the end will score higher. I say likely because it is not certain - nothing in Slam is! But often people subconsciously love a big finish and their judging range loosens as the scores creep ever upwards through the night (if they’re not super careful and conscientious). That being said, I did smash my poem with no memorable errors (and I am very critical of myself!). So take what you will from that.
Last round, five poets went through and I got drawn to go up second again! Not the best position but I know better than to psyche myself out with that. However, by this point a poet’s mind is mush from the whirlwind of stress and emotion over a long day and night - and I found myself questioning my final round poem choice.
Now, I knew I came to tell a story - my story - and the most current version of it! And that story was planned to end with a new piece of mine called “Elbows”. It is an absolute thunderclap of a poem, exploring a person’s journey through a life of archaic gender and sexuality expectations and prejudices, looking closely at the damaging effects it has on people (especially folks outside of the binary) and society as a whole - but with an empowering message of strength and even necessity for being true to your self - via the extended metaphor of elbows...
Intriguing?! I know! - if you weren’t there, you’ll have to wait until I can afford to release a video of it...
*Awaits generous patrons of the arts to step forwards*
It is a seriously dope piece and I love it but despite all of that, in the moment (for just a moment), I had some doubts. And those doubts were spreading from my perception of the low score I’d received from the judges I mentioned in the first round - for my other gender-based piece. In my heart, I was worried and almost sure they wouldn’t get it. I felt they had already shown me this. And I considered, for an agonising few minutes, doing something different. Something more “comfortable”. Something easier to digest. Ergh! Gross!
And this does happen sometimes! Sometimes the most homogenised, spread-bet, surface-level poem that doesn’t seem to really “dig in” anywhere, with a few “funny” lines, scores the best. Perhaps because it doesn’t ask for much from the audience, no one has to examine themselves or their own actions, the “bad” people in the poem don’t look like them, it lightly entertains for a few seconds and then you don’t have to think anymore about it. Yep, sometimes that’s the shit that wins - but you can guarantee the poets celebrate when it bloody doesn’t! 😂Anyway, in this moment of questioning, I frantically texted friends - wanting them to convince me one way or another but not really listening to their replies because I’m a stubborn, stoic beast who, in truth, knew all along what I needed to do, even if I did think it would cost me.
I had to do the piece I came to do. No one else was going to tell the story I was telling and some of the judges had already proved to me that was the story they needed to hear, even if they didn’t want to! And if not me now, then who and when?! No, my mind was made up.
I strode up to the mic, stalking the stage in my six inch heels and “Elbow[ed]” them in the throat with it!
I am honestly not sure how the other judges scored it but the ones who I had marked as a potential problem earlier hit it with a 9.8!
Again, to reiterate - that score doesn’t mean the piece is suddenly worth more to me - that is not why I was so happy. That score meant: they heard me! (And isn’t there a lesson in that?! Whether that is a lesson in not judging people, underestimating people, sticking to what you know is right, not giving up... it’s all in there if you want it.)
I had no idea where I’d placed because I try not to score-watch too closely (it’s far too stressful!) and even on stage when they were handing out the awards I mistakenly walked forward to collect third place! 😂 And was pulled back to wait my turn!
I ended up placing second, missing out on first by 0.3 - which doesn’t sound much but may as well be an ocean in slam terms.
So, look: I am disappointed. I will not try to hide that. But the fact is: as I said at the start - I know the value and power in my work and I know I did it justice.
The flood of love, tears and praise from audience members, fellow slammers and professional poets present confirmed this (huge thanks to you all - you know who you are!).
People heard me; what was previously invisible to some is now visible, what was already visible to others, now indelible. In a country of earthquakes, I left my own aftershocks and tremors.
And I will keep shaking!
(Final side note: I guess, second in the country isn’t THAT bad...😉)
Photo credit to Ben Fagan.