Published on October 2nd, 2013 | by Karli Ingersoll1
Individual World Poetry Slam in Spokane
Mark Anderson is first and foremost a poet and a creative. But he has also become a very prominent influence in the Spokane poetry scene and artistic community in general. We met many years ago at Empyrean when the poetry slam scene was just beginning to grow and take hold. This week Spokane is hosting the largest individual poetry slam event in the world, so I asked Mark to write a little bit about his story and what this week means for the writers in Spokane and the community.
“Spokane is a small city with a big heart and lots of words to back it up.”
72 poets from across North America will come to Spokane on October 3-5 for the 2013 Individual World Poetry Slam (iWPS). It’s the largest annual event of it’s kind. Poetry Slams are a competitive poetry event in which a winner is chosen by five random audience judges who score the performers from 0 to 10. From three days of competitions the field of 72 will be whittled down to just one, the 2013 champion.
Instead of just telling you about the immense awesomeness that is the Individual World Poetry Slam I want to tell you about my journey through the poetry community of Spokane, to show you how mind-blowingly significant everything that’s happening here is. Maybe because I’m a poet I can’t describe anything head on. I have to draw lines around it and hope that shines some light on what I’m trying to show.
I started coming to poetry events in Spokane six years ago. My friend Michael told me about a poetry open mic the Empyrean Coffee House was hosting, called the “Anarchy Slam”. The concept was simple, get up on the microphone and say or do whatever you want, no rules. The host of the event was Daniel Harrington, known by the stage name Ziryab. Between poets Daniel made political proclamations and reminded us to love one another. Sometimes he read some of his own poetry. Some nights twenty people showed up, some nights ten. We considered it a good list if more than seven people read.
Soon, Daniel got too busy to host the reading every week, and he passed on hosting to me. I was nineteen and extremely awkward. My enunciation was terrible. My mouth dried up and people couldn’t understand a word I said. I was definitely an unconventional choice, but I think now that Daniel saw me oozing with enthusiasm on the stage, and believed I would grow into the job. I remember how confused I was my first time hosting. Daniel didn’t give me any tips or instructions. A regular audience member told me “You can be anyone you want to be up there. Just don’t be yourself.” This is the most terrible piece of advice I’ve ever heard for an insecure kid hosting for the first time. Your stage persona should be natural, it should be a heightened version of yourself.
The Anarchy Slam wilted, faded away and died that Winter. I started going to poetry slams. In the spring, with renewed energy, I brought the Anarchy Slam back. Soon enough there were too many consecutive nights when not a single other poet showed up, and the reading was discontinued again. We had a few cycles like that.
One night in January 2008 I was drowning my heart-ache in tea at Empyrean and Zack Graham, the reigning slam king at the time and a friend of mine, said he thought I should try writing a slam poem about it, something pretty with lots of rhymes. He told me he thought I’d do well at it if I tried. I’d never tried writing for a poetry slam before. When I showed up to read it had always been with poems styled after Emily Dickinson. That night I stayed up late watching videos of Anis Mojgani, and I wrote my first poem for performance. Two weeks later I showed up to the poetry slam on Valentine’s Day and won for the first time. That was also the night I met Kurt Olson. Being friends with Kurt and Zack was what really turned me into a writer. We met up at Empyrean most nights of the week and talked about poetry. We read each other poems we’d written and poems we liked. We never edited each other. Soon enough Kurt teamed up with me to organize the Anarchy Slam, and it went through more cycles of growth and death.
“I also realized how much I loved the poets of Spokane, and how grateful I was to be a part of such a wonderful community.
Later that year I traveled to Charlotte, NC for the Individual World Poetry Slam. The poets there welcomed me into their community. I placed solidly in the middle of the pack, and for a twenty year old competing for the first time on the world stage, that’s great. But I realized there how it wasn’t about the competition. I also realized how much I loved the poets of Spokane, and how grateful I was to be a part of such a wonderful community.
Years passed. We re-named the Anarchy Slam “Broken Mic”. The Empyrean closed. It re-opened in a new location. The slam thrived and Broken Mic died off again. The Empyrean closed again. Kurt moved to Clarkston. I moved Broken Mic to Neato Burrito, and within three weeks it was thriving in a way it never had before. But then the poetry slam died off. Right now in the story we’re at 2011. I am twenty-two years old, and Broken Mic is now a big deal in Spokane, and I’m at the helm steering this ship that’s grown to beauty beyond my comprehension. I grew up behind the microphone. I grew up failing again and again, until finally we got it right. It didn’t just happen. We gave all we had to make it happen.
In this part of the story I have to make a small side note. People give me credit for being the sole person behind Broken Mic, for having created it all by myself. This isn’t even close to true. Hopefully you can see that several other people have helped to create this space, that I’m just a small wheel in a giant machine. Every person who has showed up and engaged with Broken Mic is a part of what makes it great. And even more: credit goes to all the people who have read in Spokane, and have organized readings even when they were unpopular, even when you got laughed at for doing it. They are the ones who slowly laid the ground-work for this to become the sort of place that supports communities of poets so fully.
Fast forward two more years. There is more talent, community, and leadership than there has ever been in the Broken Mic community. Several other successful readings have popped up around Spokane. This is when Isaac Grambo shows up and revives the Spokane Poetry Slam.
(I don’t have words of praise large enough for what Isaac has done with the Spokane Poetry Slam. Within months he had established Spokane Poetry Slam as a thriving event with its own audience, separate but intertwined with the other poetry events of Spokane. He’s the real deal.)
In the summer of 2012 the bidding process had opened to host the 2014 iWPS. Slam organizers around the northwest have been talking about bringing an event like this to the region for years, but nobody had done it yet. I found the form and sent it to Isaac asking if he thought we could pull it off. He had a rough draft of the form finished that night and asked me to look over it. You better believe he mentioned Expo ’74. You better believe he told them how Spokane hosted the Ice Skating Championships and goes crazy over big events because we love it when big things happen here. Isaac got in contact with Karen Mobley, the Spokane Arts Commissioner, and she helped edit the bid and also brought in Visit Spokane, the city’s tourism organization, who also helped to strengthen it as well. In the end we had a very professional application, and a letter from the Mayor’s office to back it up and make it even more impressive.
After all of the work we put into the bid, we were initially turned down. That was for iWPS 2014. Two months later Poetry Slam Incorporated called up Isaac asking if we were still interested in hosting an individual World Poetry Slam, and if he thought we could put together the 2013 iWPS in just ten months. He said yes.
Fast forward nine more months and we’re here. We’re on the cusp of doing something extraordinary. Just a year and a half after Isaac restarts the Spokane Poetry Slam we’re hosting the world event. When we asked Poetry Slam Incorporated why they picked Spokane they told us that what made the difference was that we demonstrated that not only do we have a first class poetry community here, we also have the support of the larger community of our city. They could tell that our city would come together to make this event a great one. And I believe that’s exactly what we’ve done.
“We’ve come so far from being those two kids who met at a poetry slam and could barely remember their lines.”
As I sit here putting the finishing touches on this post, it’s one night before the opening ceremonies and I just spent the last two hours talking with Kurt about how amazing it is that we’re actually doing this. He might have cried, huddled around an oven’s burner to warm our hands because his apartment’s heat doesn’t work well. I’m not good at crying. My eyes don’t do that. But I feel the same way he does, and I wish I could show it like that. We’ve come so far from being those two kids who met at a poetry slam and could barely remember their lines. Kurt is the official Spokane representative to this competition, and I’m competing as well, though I got in through a separate process. We were both so nervous about the prospect of making Spokane proud, about competing well. We want so badly to perform perfectly here, to show the world the kinds of poetry that Spokane is creating.
Spokane is a small city with a big heart and lots of words to back it up. Five years ago it was hard to bring twenty people to a reading. Now we’re about to host the largest individual poetry slam competition in the world. THE WORLD. I think that’s pretty cool. But it’s still only the beginning. Stay tuned.
– Mark Anderson
Support our local poets in this amazing event at one of the preliminary Slams or the Finals on Sunday. Visit the iWPS website for more info.