THE LIT SLAM: upping the performance ante with audience-curated publication

Spoken word judged by a live audience with the winners to be printed in an annual journal.

I sat down with co-creator Tatyana Brown to talk about how it works. “Poetry slams, which have been a great way to get audiences involved and interested in spoken word, tend to be shaped both by who the hosts are but also by what the prize is…” She points to the weekly Berkeley Poetry Slam, which awards $100 to each week’s winner, as an example. “Very often, what getting $100 produces is… $100 makes a difference to a working artist in a lot of situations, so you end up doing this thing in your head that’s like ‘do I do this thing that’s a sure bet, or do I do this thing that’s more creatively fulfilling for me to do on stage—that might serve the audience or serve the show better.'” Tatyana, who has toured the country as a performer and as a judge and seen slams where the winner takes a sandwich, or $10 and a twinkie, started to think about how she might change this.

In those latter cases, she says, “The competition is allowed to be a mechanism that moves the show forward, but it doesn’t shift creative decisions in the show. So what I was wondering is what would happen if you designed the show to motivate the poets to present the work that they feel most proud of, that they most want to see in print. And that’s where the idea of getting published in a literary journal that’s got a bunch of really great poets in it already came from.”

“I’ve been trying to get names from out of town who I think are pushing the boundaries as well as anybody is in the world right now on what makes great, compelling… both page work and stage work. As for the 10 features who are going to be in our first book, they are excellent names; I look at the list and I think ‘I would love to be in a journal with those people.’ So the incentive is to bring the highest quality work that you can. And it’s tricky but, ultimately, because we’re keeping this really high standard for the whole year, I’m finding that what I’m getting from a lot of the poets who are interested in competing is behind the scenes, like, ‘so this is the poem that I’m thinking about bringing, what do you think of it?’ There’s a lot of conversation about how to up our game in terms of the literary content that’s being presented.”

If you’ve at all engaged with some of the many discussions about the merits of slam poetry, you understand what a good idea this is.

Each month’s show has an invitational judge, someone from San Francisco’s literary scene selected and announced beforehand. The first judge was Rajshree Chauhan, and this month’s judge will be Daphne Gottlieb. But in addition to the invitational judge are four judges randomly selected from the audience (they try to get a diverse spread of age, race, gender, orientation, etc.). Here’s how slam judging works, but essentially there are 3 rounds: 8 poets compete. First round = 1 minute poems. Second round = 2 minute poems. Third round = 3 minute poems.

“The idea of a poetry slam in general is that the audience has control over who they hear more from. So after each round we eliminate the bottom two scoring poets from the previous round, and so it goes 8-6-4.” But there are also “sacrifices,” poets whose purpose is to help the judges and audience members calibrate themselves to the judging process. “Judging a slam is a fundamentally ridiculous act—like, assigning a numerical value to a poem is ridiculous, so you need more than one minute to figure it out.”

This month’s feature:

The Lit Slam goes as follows: Round 1, Round 2, the feature, then another calibration poet, and then the final round. First place gets 3 poems printed in the literary journal (naming contest coming soon). Second place gets 1 poem. And the audience gets to vote, also, on the best written poem of the night; everyone gets a ballot and the favorite is published on the website as part of an ongoing online journal. Zoelle Egner puts that together.

The Lit Slam is partnered with Bicycle Comics—a small, independent press. “If the book goes as well as it looks like it’s going to, we’re going to have a grand slam over the next two or three years probably somewhere in the second or third year of our show existing where the winner of the grand slam—of the whole season—gets a chapbook printed by Bicycle Comics,” Tatyana said. “The idea of doing a live audience-curated event that actually helps give the aesthetic of a community voice… that’s something I’m really excited about.”

So: an annual print with 50 poems, of which 40 are largely selected by random audience members. “In instructing, I’ve been hosting poetry slams for a few years now, and there’s a spiel that you usually give to talk to the judges about how to make the decisions they’re making, and it’s really interesting to watch the shift that an audience member will make from my typical poetry slam judge spiel to the one that I give at The Lit Slam, which is: Congratulations, you’re now the editor of a literary journal. The way that changes the decision-making process about what people are interested in is really rewarding; it happens immediately.” The randomly selected audience judges are included in the masthead beside the poems they voted on.

Subscribe for two posts per month: a recap from the month before with video and the published poem, and then previews of the forthcoming shows.

Usually 3rd Mondays of the month, this month’s episode of The Lit Slam is a fundraiser for Tara Hardy [more here], featuring Sonya Renee Taylor, this Wednesday, February 22nd. 

The Lit Slam occurs at Viracocha, 998 Valencia St. at 8pm. There’s a $5 donation at the door.

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