Every year since 2004, slam poets from all over the country (and some from outside the United States) have convened for a weekend in some city to compete for the glory of being named the top performer in the world of slam.
It’s the Individual World Poetry Slam (iWPS), and Spokane is serving as host city for this year’s events. Think of them as the Linguistic Olympics, except there’s only one gold medal. The 2013 iWPS (the poets pronounce it “eye-whoops”) begins with a wild card slam on Wednesday, followed by two days of preliminaries in which the competition will be whittled down from 72 poets to a mere dozen. On Oct. 5, the final 12 will perform, and whoever receives the highest score will be the winner.
If you’ve ever been to a slam, you know the rules: Participating poets get three minutes to present their work, usually in a series of rounds, and members of the audience rate each performance on a 1 to 10 scale. The same format applies to iWPS, except the rounds vary in time from one minute to four.
“The time parameters really force you to write new things,” said Kurt Olson, one of only two Spokane poets who are scheduled to compete. “You see poets who are reading poems that are 10 or 12 years old alongside stuff they’ve finished the month before.”
That element of spontaneity is all over the iWPS format. For example, whoever wins the wild card slam will get a chance to compete in the prelims. And peppered throughout the 72 contestants are several so-called “storm poets,” who were randomly chosen to perform their work after the initial competitors had already been scheduled.
Mark Anderson, one of those storm poets, was partly instrumental in getting iWPS to Spokane. With help from fellow poet Isaac Grambo, Spokane Arts Fund director Karen Mobley, and a letter of support from the mayor’s office, Spokane was eventually chosen, Anderson said, because of the community support for local arts.
“We have a vibrant community of poets but also have a supportive business community that wanted this here,” Anderson said. “That’s what made us attractive.”
Both Anderson and Olson have been integral to Spokane’s slam poetry scene – Anderson has been emceeing open mic nights at Neato Burrito for several years now, and he’s handing the hosting reigns over to Olson. Both of them believe that having iWPS in Spokane will bolster Spokane’s artistic reputation outside the Inland Northwest.
“I’m definitely proud of Spokane,” Anderson said. “I think it’s going to be startling and refreshing for a lot of people that come into this atmosphere and see what we’re doing. I think there’s going to be some really interesting cultural exchange.”
If Spokane isn’t universally recognized as a lively hub for writers and performers, Olson hopes that the competitors who are traveling to Spokane from around the country will acknowledge the talent and hard work of Spokane’s slam poets.
“I hope they walk around the city and hear the poets reading and meet the people working, and they think to themselves, ‘These poets don’t write because they’re privileged. They write to stay alive. They write for a reason. They really have something to change, and they’re trying to do it through art.’ I hope they see that and understand that art isn’t a way to pass the time, but a way to make the time worthwhile.”