So while I pride myself on not being excessively or inappropriately judgmental (because sometimes judgment is necessary), of late I’ve found myself being in the position of being asked to judge people — I’ve been a judge at two poetry slams; I helped judge Word War Six in December alongside a group of amazingly cool people, and I recently judged the 2nd Annual Youth Poetry Slam at City Hall right here in downtown Baltimore
A few words really quickly on being a judge — ITS NOT EASY AT ALL! I’m very sympathetic to and empathize with spoken word artists who get onstage in front of crowds of folks and present themselves and their work. I’ve done it. I know its not easy. Trust me I know. Writing is hard. Submitting yourself for criticism is hard. I’ve written some stuff that I knew was AMAZING and had people look at me crosseyed when I presented it. I’ve had people leave the room when I got onstage. But none of that phases me at this point, because I’m way too old to give a fuck about that type shit…but I digress.
At the same time I respect writing, and public speaking, and the ability to make crowds think and laugh and cry and feel with the words you collect into groups and call poems. So when you do that in front of me, I need to see your respect for it, your hard work, your talent, and most importantly, your realization that this is something not to be taken lightly. And as a judge, while I try to maintain some objectivity, there are just certain types of styles, subjects, and deliveries that resonate with me. Here are some examples of my personal likes and dislikes, and the things I’ve typically heard judges say around the table as poets work onstage.
If you don’t have it memorized, low score, point blank period. Some judges say they’ve heard people rock from a written page. It may be possible, but I haven’t seen it. So if I see you reading from your paper or electronic device, you’re going to have to work harder to win me over. A LOT HARDER. Chances are you won’t, so just memorize the poem.
I don’t like excessive wordplay, especially if I didn’t get your point once you were done, or didn’t get the fact that there was no point. So if you do that in front of me at a slam, I’m going to score you low.
I’m not overly blown away by theatrics — I appreciate them, but I’m not crazy about them, and I hate them if they don’t work with the poem. So if you’re flashy with no substance, low score.
I love what I call a “quiet power poet”. They seem almost shy as they approach the mic, almost reluctant to perform, but once they get to going they just hit you over the head with intensity and fire and lines and rhymes that builds and draws you in.I love great pacing and great phrasing. So if you are that type of poet, you will get mad love from me, especially because I don’t think the “quiet power poets” get the respect they should.
I love a GOOD erotic/sex poem, or better still, a GREAT one. If you can do one, you will get a good score from me. But if its wack, I’m going to judge you quite harshly because I enjoy good erotica and hate to see erotica poorly executed in any format. NOTE: If it is explicit in a vulgar way, or it is not at all seductive, low score. I hate erotic poems that are instruction manuals or laundry lists of what you wanna do or what you’re gonna do. There has to be a grace and artfulness in it, even if its funny or vulgar. So don’t bring me your rhyming wish list, because you will get a low score and I’ll laugh at you too because you really thought that shit was sexy.
If you’re slamming and you present the same type of poem or subject matter consecutively, you’ll get a low score by the second or third round, even if I loved you in the first round. So don’t think because I gave your political poem a “10” you should do nothing but political poems the rest of the slam. If you start with a political piece, that’s cool, but I need to hear you switch up in the second or third round. Give me a nice range of topics. This is why you need a deep bench when you slam — you really need a wide range of subjects to pull from.
If you “rap” at a slam, I’m going to take it under advisement. Now I’ve heard lots of arguments about rap lyrics being poetry, etc. This is my take on it — there is a certain type of cadence and organization of lyrics and rhymes that is rap. I know it when I hear it. So if you present it at a slam, I’m not going to give you a low score right off the bat, BUT I’m going to need you to highlight the poetry/artistic aspect of your piece above the other elements. If what I notice most about your piece is the “beat” you created as you performed it, and I don’t remember any lines or hooks, or the lines or hooks weren’t hot, low score. So tread lightly if you go this route.
Finally — keep in mind when you’re doing a piece on a popular topic, you run the risk of being mundane. Relationship poems can be amazing, but I hear them a lot. So if you do one, I need it to be amazing. Poems on current events can rock a venue, but again, I hear a lot of them, so yours needs to stand out. IF you write on popular subjects, play to your greatest strengths as a poet and make sure the piece highlights those strengths.
With all of that said, I want to show you some examples of different styles I saw at Word War Six that I enjoyed and one I did not.