Giant wooden flats filled to the hilt line the walls of the room; over a hundred gallons of beer bubble and ferment in massive vats — a perfect ambiance to the gathering of literary lovers that packed the back room of Woodland Empire on Thursday. Armed with nothing but beer, one by one, the brave stood before the crowd and fearlessly bared their soul. Quiet snaps as heads bob in unison, muttering a gentle ‘yes’ with resonating lines of prose that both entice and inspire. Welling eyes and racing hearts can be seen from every side of the room; large approving
smiles give courage to those bold enough to unveil themselves and their stories for the rest of us.
The show begins with a sacrifice and the crowd chants the word over and over again — clearly many of them have done this before. “Sacrifice! Sacrifice!” The MC, and President of Big Tree Arts, Tara Brenner starts the event by reading a piece of her own. This is done in solidarity and assures the rest of the performing poets that they, too, can fight their nerves and stand alone in front of so many.
Thus begins the slam. Through wavering voices and exposed souls, each poet stands in front of both friends and strangers alike, to share their pieces. Every one of them struck a cord with the audience in a very different way. Many were natural stages performers, bold and boisterous with voices that reverberated off the metal brew tanks. Others, more timid, less used to the spotlight, but all very talented.
The beauty of poetry is that it is a timeless craft that is nearly as unpredictable as Idaho weather. With free-verse growing more popular, poetry is reaching new levels of creativity and ingenuity. As the poets read their words, I began to imagine each one of their individual processes — how they reached for inspiration, where they often wrote, how long they had been writing — an endless slew of questions only subsided by my desire to hang on every word they spoke.
The judges for the reading are chosen at random from the audience. The five judges volunteer and are allowed to be the one who, as Brenner says, “Assign numbers to art.” They rank each poem on a 0-10 scale and hold this number up on a whiteboard at the end of each performance. The scores are then read aloud from lowest to highest and tallied. After all of the performances, the scores are tallied and a second round is announced. The poets then take to the stage again.
While it is a competition, it is clear that there is nothing but love and support in this room, in the back of a brewery, where both beer and inspiration is being concocted. Every poem received a showering of cheer and applause, intermediate snaps of approval, and some even walked away with prizes: silly puddy, bubble wands, and an inflatable flamingo.
The last prize that was added to the pot at this slam was – “In My Thoughts,” a spoken-word album by Brandon Leake, a featured performer from Stockton, California. Boise was Leake’s last stop on his tour and it was a performance I am so grateful I got to witness. His words were powerful, speaking both to and from the heart. He spoke on topics like his unwavering faith to growing up in Stockton. His poems delved into issues such as patriarchy, intolerance, racism, and the oppression of females; in them he describes his gratitude for his mother, the loss of his friend and grandfather, shared stories of his life, and his journey into becoming a slam poet. Leake’s album is available on iTunes here and from the short preview that we got at Woodland Empire, it is well worth the purchase.
Going to events like these help bring me one step closer to maybe getting the courage to stand up there myself. For the time being, I am ever so content being the supportive audience member. My hat is off to all of the performers — thank you for an amazing experience!
Big Tree Arts will be hosting plenty of upcoming slams if you’re interested in sharing your story or attending any of the events. Their website has a full list of future performances, click here for more information!