Slam poetry culture grows in Utah

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Sam Anderson, right, watches David AJ Robinson perform at The Wall. (Saturday Night Slam Series/Facebook)
Sam Anderson, right, watches David AJ Robinson perform at The Wall. (Saturday Night Slam Series/Facebook)

Seasoned and amateur poets alike are standing behind microphones all over Utah to share a taste of their passion: slam poetry. Many BYU students have found common ground in this increasingly popular art.

The exact origin of “slam” is debatable. Slam poets perform informal poetry on stage while fluctuating their voice, timing, accents and impressions. Poems can range from comedic and light to contemplative and dark.

Slam audience members are encouraged to hoot and holler or clap, snap and amen to anything that speaks to them.

BYU junior Sam Anderson described slam poetry as a community.

“It’s about bringing everyone in,” he said. “Together we’re having an experience. Whereas when poetry is on a page, in a book, you’re skimming it because you have to read it for a class.”

Anderson and fellow junior Cameron Mayo are the enthusiastic masterminds behind slam poetry on campus. The two began organizing slamming at BYU in December 2014 after Mayo returned from his mission with the idea. Anderson’s motivation added to it.

The Saturday Night Slam Series, which came from Mayo and Anderson’s efforts in Fall 2015, has already seen success. More than 600 people attended January’s Winter Wonder Slam, pushing The Wall to maximum capacity.

Slam poetry seems to appeal to a younger crowd.

Abigail Smith performs at The Wall. (Saturday Night Slam Series/Facebook)
Abigail Smith performs at The Wall. (Saturday Night Slam Series/Facebook)

Whatever the pull for students, Mayo and Anderson are convinced that slam holds a magic that hooks attendees on their first poetry slam.

So it was with freshman Anna Wright, described on The Saturday Night Slam Series’ Facebook page as a “regular MVP” who “never, ever disappoints.”

Wright, who enjoys slamming about childhood, the tug-of-war between city and country life, and love and angst, attended her first slam with her roommates with a poem in hand and an open mind.

“People were just bearing their souls,” she said. “There was definitely this tangible feeling of trust in the room.”

Wright won with her romantic poem in January’s Winter Wonder Slam and anticipated slamming with a partner at the next Saturday Night Slam Series event. She has found her slamming experiences enriching for both her and her audience.

“That was a cool feeling, knowing that my words impacted people,” Wright said.

Though BYU does not have a formal slam poetry team, Saturday Night Slam Series has aspirations to create one.

“We have hopes to start a slam team,” Anderson said, “because we know we could win.”

For now, BYU slams are held at The Wall. The cost of admission is one haiku. Anyone can sign up using the Saturday Night Slam Series’ Facebook page. The first 30 to sign up perform on a first-come-first-serve basis. Judges are selected randomly from the audience, and after the “sacrificial poet” (a performance by the pervious slam winner), the show kicks off. Offering no disclaimers, each poet shares what Anderson calls “three minutes of poetic passion.” Four winners are chosen after judges tally their scores.

One unique aspect of the Saturday Night Slam Series is its rules. The Honor Code holds standards high, and Saturday Night Slam Series asks that poems be kept at a PG-13 rating. This differs from most slams, where curse words can be considered poetic language and difficult topics surface, such as domestic violence and race relations.

Anderson has no doubt BYU students face just as vast an array of trials as other slam poets. However, poems performed at Saturday Night Slam Series tend to be more conservative. He believes the reason for this is simply a natural tendency for BYU students to filter their own content.

He guessed that in the future, the range of topics at BYU will expand to create more of a conversation in the poetry slam setting about life’s difficulties.

To anyone interested but reluctant to start their career as a slam poet, Anderson has one thing to say: “We created the slam for you.”

Wright has similar feelings.

“If you are unsure if you should share a poem, go for it. You’ll have far more impact than you realize and you’ll be changed in the process,” she said.

But BYU isn’t the only hotspot for slam. The group Wasatch Wordsmiths is creating its own slamming community in the Salt Lake area.

“We try to focus on our craft and community. We try to grow our poems,” said Benjamin Barker, University of Utah student and Wasatch Wordsmiths board member.

The non-profit hosts slams, monthly workshops and other high school and middle school workshops in the Salt Lake area. Hosts encourage all to share their voices. They also work to raise funds to send a team of qualifying poets to the National Poetry Slam, which will be held this year in Atlanta, Georgia.

The group’s community outreach efforts have had great results, with one West Jordan high school now working to make slam poetry a school sport.

“It’s always good to see you’re doing something for the community and to see something snowball in a positive direction because of it,” Barker said.

With qualifying slams for the National Poetry Slam on the horizon, Westminster College student Nicole Tyler is readying herself for the upcoming events.

Tyler, a sophomore, quickly found her niche in the slam world and has become a Salt Lake favorite. She hosts slams and workshops and competes with Westminster. Tyler also represented Salt Lake City at the Women of the World Poetry Slam in Brooklyn New York in March.

She said she wants to travel to encourage others to make art.

“I know how much it’s done for me, and I can only imagine what it would do for them,” Tyler said.

Barker said anyone in Provo is welcome to become involved. Those like Tyler who are seeking a competitive slam experience can find it at the Sugar Slams and Salt City Slams hosted by Wasatch Wordsmiths.

Other opportunities to slam in Provo also exist. Enliten Bakery on Center Street hosts a weekly Creative Writing Open Mic. Writers have seven minutes to share their creative work. The open mic nights are occasionally dedicated primarily to slam poetry as well.

Anderson and Mayo are already seeing the fruits of their labors on campus. BYUSA candidates have used slam poetry as part of their campaigning, and many wards have hosted slam poetry nights as well.

“Students have started something,” Anderson said.

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