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What you need to know for 08/17/2017

Poetry slam competition puts a new focus on ancient art form

Poetry slam competition puts a new focus on ancient art form

Mojavi Wright wants to win. And he thinks his team has the talent to do so. His sport? Poetry. Wrigh

Mojavi Wright wants to win. And he thinks his team has the talent to do so.

“If we can make it to the semi-finals, then we’ve got a chance,” Wright said.

His sport? Poetry.

Wright is the coach of the Nitty Gritty poetry slam team, which will compete in the National Poetry Slam in Charlotte, N.C., from Aug. 7 to 11. Based in Albany, the five-member team is an outgrowth of Nitty Gritty Slam, a poetry slam held at Valentine’s, a music venue in Albany, on the first and third Tuesday of each month.

A poetry slam is a competitive event where poets recite their own poetry and are scored by judges; the poets with the highest marks advance to subsequent rounds, until a winner is declared.

Nitty Gritty Slam hosted its first event last September and was recently named an official slam venue by Poetry Slam, Inc. a non-profit organization that oversees poetry slams throughout the world. The certification puts Nitty Gritty on PSI’s map of slams, which helps poets find a place to compete.

Poetry Slam

WHO: Nitty Gritty Slam

WHEN: 1st and 3rd Tuesdays

WHERE: Valentine’s, 17 New Scotland Ave., Albany


Local sponsors

Each Nitty Gritty Slam is sponsored by three local groups: Frequency North, the visiting writers series at The College of Saint Rose, the Urban Guerilla Theatre, an Albany-based spoken word/poetry/performance artists’ collective, and the Albany Poets, a group that promotes local poetry through open mics, slams, music and spoken word events.

Nitty Gritty slams are preceded by an open mic, where poets recite on stage without competing. This allows them to get used to performing and to hone their craft, Wright said.

At a recent slam, Daniel Nester, an assistant professor of English at Saint Rose and coordinator of Frequency North, served as disc jockey, playing a mix of funk and disco through the event. Wright hosted the open mic, while Thom Francis, president of the Albany Poets, hosted the slam. During the short break between the open mic and slam, Wright recruited five judges from the audience, who held up cards with numbers — usually a mix of 8s and 9s — after each performance.

Poets who compete can’t use props, costumes or musical instruments, must read their own work, and are limited to three minutes; if they go over the time limit, they are penalized.

Maximum impact

“What slamming really boils down to is the minimum amount of words for maximum impact,” Wright said. “It’s sexy and it’s charged, and it makes you angry and it makes you want to fight. It brings out the best in each poet for three minutes.” Some poets have questioned whether competition and poetry are compatible, but Wright dismissed those concerns.

“We compete for everything,” he said. “We compete for jobs. We compete for parking spaces. Here we compete to see whose poem can bring the crowd to a crescendo of cheers and happiness, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Most people don’t see poetry as a vibrant art form. I prove that it is, every month.”

Francis agreed. “When you put your work out there to be published, it’s a competition,” he said.

Nester said that slams return poetry to its roots. “We need to be reminded that poetry began as an oral art,” he said.

The Nitty Gritty Slam has what’s known as an “8-4-2” format. In the first round, eight poets compete, and the four poets with the best score advance to the second round. The two poets who emerge from the second round with the highest scores move on to the final round.

Slams are open to all.

“Anybody can slam,” said Nester. He said that the quality of the poetry varies. “You’ll hear great stuff and bad stuff.”

Nester said that he almost never slams, but that he’s a big “slam fan,” and that he wanted his students to have the opportunity to attend slams. He also sensed that others were interested in bringing poetry slams to Albany; groups such as the Urban Guerilla Theatre were already hosting performance poets.

“Having a slam team is something I wanted to do for years and years and years and years,” Francis said. “We’ve had some incredible talent come through here. It’s been a dream of mine to get a team on stage.”

Revitalized scene

Mary Panza, vice president of the Albany Poets, said that Nitty Gritty has revitalized the local poetry scene.

“There are people who come to the slams who might not know about [other poetry events],” she said. “[The slams] can get them interested in what else is out there. Some of the people who up and compete on a lark have won. Everybody is very welcoming of new people. It’s not cliquey. We encourage new talent. We encourage young talent.”

The National Poetry Slam will bring together 72 teams to compete for a national championship. Organizers describe the event as “part super bowl, part poetry summer camp, and part traveling exhibition.”

The National Poetry Slam is sponsored by Poetry Slam, Inc., as well as SlamCharlotte and the Charlotte-based Blumenthal Performing Arts.

Reach Gazette reporter Sara Foss at 395-3193 or

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