Story and gallery by SAMANTHA SHAW
Watchtower Cafe sits tucked between a tattoo shop and an art supply store on State Street in Salt Lake City. On the second Thursday of every month, slam poets from all over the city gather to share their art at Sugar Slam.
Slam poetry in its official form has been around since the 1980s and individuals craft poems for the purpose of being performed. Dorothy McGinnis, 19, defined slam poetry as “poetry, but for the masses.” She also described the art as removing poetry from the academic space.
McGinnis was first introduced to the idea of slam poetry by a junior high school English teacher in Salt Lake City who showed her YouTube videos of performances. At age 13, she began going to open mic nights.
In high school, her theater teacher was a nationally acclaimed poet and encouraged her to go to slams and expand her horizons. It was then that she performed her first slam poem and she’s been slamming ever since. McGinnis now serves her community as president of the Wasatch Wordsmiths, the nonprofit organization that holds the monthly Sugar Slam.
In October, McGinnis returned from representing the Sugarhouse neighborhood at the 2017 Individual World Poetry Slam (IWPS) in Washington, where she performed her favorite poem, “Pompeii (In Which I am Mt. Vesuvius).”
In comparing the national slam poetry scene to the one in Salt Lake City, McGinnis said, “We’re very very white.” Although the diversity of the community is something poets love about slam poetry, the demographics of Utah are not in their favor. However, McGinnis went to the IWPS Nationals on an all-woman team, which is rare on a national scale and a first-time occurrence in Utah.
While much of the Utah slam poetry scene is white, one will still see plenty of diversity at the monthly slams. Every gender, sexual orientation, age and socioeconomic class can be found ordering a classic latte or a Watchtower Café special like the Butterbeer. Competing poets and onlookers alike all squeeze around heavy wooden tables, surrounded by blackboards with doodles of video game and anime characters such as Princess Peach, the Avatar and Kirby.
Another prominent local poet is Bryce Wilson, 21, a student at Salt Lake Community College. He came in second place in the Sugar Slam that was held Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. He started slamming after a breakup when a friend advised him to write down all the things he hated about the relationship. Wilson performed that list at his first poetry slam in Salt Lake City and took first place.
A typical slam starts with an open mic, where anyone can get up and perform anything. “There’s always one open mic that’s really good and you wonder why they aren’t competing,” Wilson said. Every slam has a host, who introduces the poets and keeps the audience engaged.
After the open mic, the host selects five people from the audience to judge the slam. The host attempts to choose judges have never attended a slam before, and they cannot know any of the competing poets.
Before the official slam begins, the audience calls for the “sacrificial poet.” Wilson’s favorite part of a slam, the sacrifice performs a poem for the newly appointed judges so that the competitors can, in Wilson’s words, “gauge the five random weirdos who are going to be giving these ambiguous points.”
After the sacrifice, the first round of the slam begins. Wilson said most poets will kick off the competition with a funny poem in round one and move on to a darker, more introspective piece in round two. In round three, anything goes! Some poets are eliminated after each round, based on the subjective scores. After the scores are announced, the host reminds everyone to “applaud the performer, not the score.” The final round’s scores determine first, second and third place. The only prizes are “bragging rights and experience,” Wilson said.
Both McGinnis and Wilson credit slam poetry with giving them more confidence, a better sense of self and connections within the community that will last a lifetime. They encourage anyone who is interested to get involved, whether that be as an audience member or as a poet.
Two regular events are held in the Salt Lake City area. The Sugar Slam takes place on the second Thursday of every month at Watchtower Café at 1588 State St. while the Salt City Slam is held at Even Stevens on 400 East and 200 South every last Monday. The Wasatch Wordsmiths keep the community updated on events and featured poets via their Facebook page.