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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    From the page to the stage

    Lindsay Miller, a creative writing sophomore and an energetic poet, slams a poem from memory, leaving behind no emotion.
    Lindsay Miller, a creative writing sophomore and an energetic poet, slams a poem from memory, leaving behind no emotion.

    Slam poetry scene spices up Tucson, UA

    If you join much of the academic world in the belief that poetry won’t pay, you have not yet been properly introduced to prose poetry’s fast-paced, on-the-spot sister: slam.

    The bastard child of poetry and hip-hop, slam poetry transforms traditional prose into a theatrical and competitive art form. Participants read their own work in three rounds and are judged on a scale of one to 10 by randomly selected audience members. Throughout each round, the lowest-scoring participants are weeded out, and the last poet standing wins fame, glory and a wad of cash.

    “”Slam is popular because of its performance and competitive aspects,”” said Frances Sjoberg, literary director of the UA Poetry Center. “”It is written to be performed and sometimes includes music, so it is different from traditional poetry that is based on the page.””

    This year, a group of local Tucsonans and UA students are hoping to create a slam team to represent Tucson in a national competition yielding a $2,000 grand prize – as well as well-earned bragging rights as the best damn “”slammers”” in the country.

    Ocotillo Slam, a group comprised mostly of UA students, began hosting slams last year in an effort to stimulate the slam scene in Tucson and is now working toward their ultimate goal of paying the $600 fee it takes to send a team to represent Tucson in nationals.

    Alan Tan, left, a freshman majoring in creative writing and German, recites a poem next to Teresa Driver, director of the Tucson Poetry Festival, who is also deeply invested in her own poetic expression.

    “”Tucson has a lot of performance poetry, but hadn’t had a slam in 10 years,”” said Teresa Driver, co-founder and executive director of Ocotillo Slam. “”Aside from the slam hosted once a year by the Tucson Poetry Festival, there was a lot of talent here, but no one to organize regular slams.””

    So when Driver, the director of the Tucson Poetry Festival, met creative writing sophomore Lindsay Miller and creative writing senior Maya Asher, the team put their heads together and began hosting slams once a month last year at Espresso Art, 944 E. University Blvd.

    “”We found a place that was free, which was great since we had no money at the time, and we did slams all last year and collected enough money in donations to have a feature poet come in for our last show,”” Driver said.

    As word spread through the creative writing community, the number of audience members grew to twice exceed the 30-person capacity limit in a room upstairs at Espresso Art, so the group migrated to their current venue, Bentley’s House of Coffee and Tea, 1730 E. Speedway Blvd.

    For a slam poet, winning an Ocotillo Slam means winning respect, publicity and a cash prize of $50, plus the validation that you’re a certified poetic bad ass who has broken through the common fear of reading in public.

    Alan Tanz, a creative writing freshman, knows this fear first-hand. Competing and collaborating with Ocotillo Slam, he said, has helped him to adjust to Tucson and find more confidence in his work.

    “”The first time I slammed, my legs were shaking the whole time,”” Tanz said. “”It was an experience, and the next day I went to an Ocotillo workshop and really enjoyed hearing what others had to say, and enjoyed the fact that they listened to what I had to say.””

    To be on the team that will represent Tucson at nationals, Driver said, poets must compete in at least two of three Ocotillo Slams, hosted on the fourth Saturday of each month throughout next semester.

    In April, the group will host a “”slam-off,”” and the top four or five winning poets will create the national team that will compete against similar teams based in Phoenix and Flagstaff, as well as throughout the nation.

    “”We want Tucson to be a part of the national poetry community,”” Miller said. “”We would like to put Tucson on the map, to be regarded as a destination for traveling poets since poets go on tour all of the time.””

    Ocotillo Slam poets Maya Asher, left, Lindsay Miller, Alan Tan and Teresa Driver simultaneously lay down four different poems to illustrate their styles.

    Steve Marsh, executive director of the National Poetry Slam, in which a team from Tucson will compete this summer, said he has continued to work with slam since 1981 because of its rewards for both the poet and the audience.

    “”In slam, there is immediate feedback,”” Marsh said. “”You know instantly if the audience loves you or if they are just tolerating you, and it’s a huge boost of energy.””

    While no specific slam event occurs yet on campus, Words from the Soul, an open-mic event hosted by the Pi Beta Sigma fraternity twice a semester in the Cellar in the Student Union Memorial Center, provides a venue for poets of all forms to recite, said TJ Willis, senior coordinator for campus activities.

    “”Poetry slam does have a niche that hasn’t really been tapped into on our campus yet,”” Willis said. “”But there are definitely people who are interested in it.””

    If you ask them, each member of the Ocotillo Slam will tell you about ideas to create future slams that involve members of the Tucson youth, university and deaf communities.

    “”We’ve talked about doing a specific UA slam, or a specific high school slam,”” Miller said. “”We probably have a lot more ideas than we have time and resources to implement them all.””

    Still, Asher added, it would be awesome to get different kinds of community members together to experience poetry.

    Until that day, slammers and prose poets alike can check out the dates and times of Ocotillo Slam events on their online blog at

    Slams are open to any person, poet or not, and donations are encouraged and accepted at the door.

    “”We all have a passion of bringing a new voice to Tucson, or giving voice to those who have been here for years,”” Asher said. “”There’s sort of a stigma that slam is not real poetry, but I have always had the idea that this is poetry at its best.””

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