Every slam poet has a conversion story. For Lacey Roop, it all started with an open-mic poetry night at the Hideout Coffeehouse, where she was studying for a macroeconomics exam. A business major and "super-jock" from small-town Mississippi who had recently transferred to Texas State University, she had little creative outlet at the time. Intrigued, she soon found her way to her first poetry slam, a competitive spoken-word performance in which members of the audience score poets and determine the winner.
Having played basketball in high school with three future WNBA players, Roop was no stranger to adrenaline, but her first slam was like nothing she'd seen before. "It was like listening to rock & roll the first time," she says. "You're like, 'What is this? How have I not experienced this before?'"
Five years later, business school is a distant memory for the dreadlocked, gravel-voiced Roop, whose agile, soaring performances of her own intricately woven poems have earned her rankings at all three national slam competitions. Her favorite competition every year, however, is the Women of the World Poetry Slam. And this year, it's in her backyard.
This week, WOWPS brings 72 slam poets, all women, to Austin for a four-day extravaganza of spoken-word competitions, daytime workshops, and late-night events culminating in a final championship bout at the Paramount Theatre. Billed as the largest international women's poetry competition, the slam pits local and regional female champions against one another – including Roop, who will represent Austin Poetry Slam, and Ebony Stewart, who will represent Austin Neo-Soul Lounge. This is the seventh annual WOWPS, and the first held in the southern U.S., much less Austin.
We're ready for it. With two weekly venues packing houses regularly and two indie presses devoted exclusively to publishing spoken-word poetry, Austin is known for a slam scene that is consistently strong and unusually supportive. Gutsy performers such as Roop; Ebony "Gully Princess" Stewart, who took the Best Slam Poet award at the 2011 National Poetry Awards; Zai Sadler, a hip-hop artist and WOWPS alternate; and Tova Charles, the nationally ranked poet organizing the slam locally, have played a crucial role in that scene, as has Neo-Soul poet La-Love Robinson, who's hosted the quarterly spoken-word event Spitfest for a decade. These poets not only have impeccable creds, they also help knit together two scenes, the Austin Poetry Slam and the Neo-Soul Lounge; many of them are regulars at both slams, and have repped for both at the national level.
"The awesome thing about our scene is, we do have a lot of males," says Charles, "but they respect our voice, the female voice." Case in point: Roop and Stewart were the first two poets to be published by Kevin Burke's Timber Mouse Press.
Nevertheless, since construction worker Marc Smith held the first slam at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in 1984, slam has been something of a testosterone-fueled endeavor. That's what gave Deb Marsh, WOWPS' "founding mother," the idea for an all-female slam in the first place. "I'd been involved in poetry slam since the early Nineties, and I noticed, as a performer and an audience member and an organizer, that women's voices, because they're softer and quieter, were not equally represented on the stages through the poetry slam events we were hosting. The guys just took up more space." Marsh felt that adding a women's-only slam to the roster of national competitions would level the playing field, allowing more women to compete.
Karrie Waarala, current executive director of Poetry Slam Inc. which hosts all three national competitions, says that despite women's growing participation, competitions such as Individual World Poetry Slam and National Poetry Slam still tend to favor the more aggressive male performers. "Women sometimes feel like their work may connect with audience members, but not in a way that scores. The audience can be liking it, but as soon as we turn it into the competition, when you hand them the score cards, something seems to shift a little bit, in the poetry that gets rewarded."
Competition is at the core of the poetry slam, however, and not everyone was enthusiastic about a gender-segregated competition. The PSI forums exploded with lively debates, many of the most negative comments coming from women who were worried that a women's-only slam would weaken the perception of female poets and blunt their competitive edge. Marsh recalls being asked, "What's next for us, special ed?"
Meanwhile, supporters pointed out that the slam community, despite its inclusive stage politics, could, in practice, be a hostile place for women. Marsh recalls specific incidents that had generated concern at a national level, one of which occurred at a National Poetry Slam in Austin: "We had a guy actually do a rape poem and mention a woman's name in the audience, a poet on another team." Poets Rachel McKibbens and Tatyana Brown, both of whom will be in Austin for WOWPS, have written about sexism and sexual harassment in the slam scene. These can feel especially threatening at national slams, where women are generally outnumbered, Marsh says. "Women don't travel nearly as much from venue to venue, state to state, because it's not as safe for a woman to be alone in the car driving around, or they have children. There are lots of reasons."
Ultimately, though, even Marsh was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response to the first WOWPS – not only from performing poets, who routinely cite it as their favorite competition of the year, but from male attendees and volunteers.
When asked to describe what makes WOWPS different from other slams, ordinarily articulate poets stumble to find the right word. "What I love about it is you have this – a lot of sisterhood, I guess. Motherhood," Roop says. "I've been to all of them, and I've seen the energy and felt the energy in the room. It's different. It's just different."
"It's more than just the competition," says Charles. "I've been at the IWPS, and people don't cheer for each other. At WOWPS, everyone's cheering you on. The scores matter – but they don't."
Robinson points to the commonality of experience that lends a solidarity to the subject matter. "You have a lot of common ground – mothers, rape victims – women who have been through the same things."
There are also mentoring opportunities. Charles says, "With my own work, what matters to me the most is my body, because for years it has not been seen as a body, it's been seen as property, it's been seen as someone else's property. So it's very important for me to talk about that, and talk about that for younger women, to feel like they're not alone in that." Charles herself is most excited about the workshops, which will include sessions taught by past WOWPS champions McKibbens and Dominique Christina, a workshop by Denise Jolly on art that involves the body, and a one-woman show by Albanian poet Gypsee Yo.
Aside from the warm fuzzies, however, proponents of WOWPS believe that the setting allows for more diverse and riskier performances, strengthening the quality of the poems overall. "We see different types of poetry, women taking risks onstage that they might not in other competitions," says Waarala. "You can make the audience lean in a little bit."
In a world where women are often the ones told to lean in, that's an empowering feeling. As Stewart, a pint-sized powerhouse of a poet who describes her own style as "beasty," said of her slam conversion moment, years ago: "I got three minutes, you know what I mean? I got three minutes, and you have to listen to me."
The Women of the World Poetry Slam 2014 runs through March 22 at various locations around Austin. For a complete schedule, visit www.wow.poetryslam.com
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