When poetry becomes a team sport, says performance poet Jesse Parent, everyone has different strengths.
“There’s a lot of emotional value, and there’s a lot of content value,” Parent said of the dynamics of slam-poetry competitions. “You might have someone who’s really great at comedy, and some who are really good at being vulnerable.”
Parent is one of the five members of Salt City Unified, a team of poets who are gearing up for a trip to Chicago in August for the National Poetry Slam, in which teams from across the country will square off in verbal battle.
As a warmup, and a fundraiser, Salt City Unified will appear at the monthly Salt City Slam poetry event, Monday, July 30, at 8 p.m. at Even Stevens, 414 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City. Admission is $5, $3 for students (with ID) or free for educators and those competing in the slam.
“It’s a showcase for all the work we’ve been doing,” said Tanesha Nicole Tyler, another poet on the Unified team. “It’s a nice way to give back to our community, to thank you all for supporting us.”
Salt City Slam happens on the last Monday of every month at Even Stevens and is divided into three parts. First is an open-mic session “to get people to experience the microphone,” Parent said.
Then there’s a featured poet, usually a touring performer, “so people can experience what voices outside the Salt Lake area sound like,” he said. This month, the members of Salt City United — Parent, Tyler, Dorothy McGinnis, Jose Soto and RJ Walker — are the featured group.
Last, there’s the competitive poetry slam. The slam sessions are scored by a panel of five judges — all selected at random from the audience — and audience participation is encouraged.
“We make sure people are vocal, are reacting,” Parent said. “We want them to boo. We want them to clap. We want them to get off their butts if they want.”
Poets get two points for taking the stage, and more if they place first, second or third in the monthly session, Tyler said. At the end of the “season,” which runs from August through April, the poets with the five highest point totals go to nationals.
In competition, Tyler said, she may come in with “my ideal set list, but I might have flexibility. I might do [one poem] in the second round, or the third round. Or I have this [poem] in my back pocket, in case I need it. But there’s also power in ‘I’m sticking to my set list.’”
At nationals, teams usually have four performance slots in a match. Parent said Salt City Unified is one of the few teams that tie their four poems to a single theme. “It’s something poets love to see because it’s very different,” Parent said. “Each one has to be completely self-contained, and they can resonate with each other.”
This year, the team has a quartet of poems inspired by characters in “The Wizard of Oz” taking their issues to Dorothy and The Wizard.
“With the Scarecrow piece, it’s actually about ruralism and degree snobbery. The Tin Man [poem] is about depression, and the Cowardly Lion [poem] is about Black Lives Matter,” Parent said. “Dorothy’s response is a feminist response to men who rely on women to do their work.”
Some poets take the competition seriously, Parent said, but for many it’s more about connecting with the community of fellow poets. “I don’t remember who won, but I remember who was nice to me,” he said.