The existence of an Alaska Poetry League is something that should not surprise anyone, since nothing could be more conducive to the writing of poetry than long Alaska winters and long Alaska nights.
To those accustomed to reading poetry on the printed page, going to a poetry slam -- like the slam workshop held at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, then performed at Buster's Coffeehouse Saturday night -- was an experience reminiscent of an when Greek poets performed to the music of lyres, or Victorian poets chanted odes to the queen's glory.
"Poetry is oral and aural," said Nicole S. O'Donnell, an English teacher from Fairbanks, and a members of the Alaska Poetry League.
Poetry slams, which have been in existence since 1984, were popularized by people who had poetry they wanted people to hear but couldn't get published. They began to perform in bars and clubs, said O'Donnell, and it gradually became a national form of competition.
In a slam, people perform their poetry publicly. There are five judges who score them. The highest and lowest scores are dropped, and the score is the average of the three remaining scores.
Kima Hamilton, another member of the APL and a disc jockey at a men's club in Anchorage, said slams are "so not about the score. If you're going to create a scene for nontraditional poets, you have to entertain as well. The scores keep people there."
Judges often are selected from the audience, from people who say they know nothing about poetry, said Hamilton.
He kept people at the workshop rapt throughout the entire session, which lasted from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Saturday. Wearing a yellow T-shirt and a set of dreadlocks that made him more than noticeable, Hamilton stood in front of fellow-poets to proclaim he had been conceived on Valentine's Day, and it had altered his consciousness.
Alaska winters do seem a good way to inspire poets, but anyone attending the workshop might have been surprised by the diversity in the crowd -- 12 in all -- who showed up. From 19-year-old Matt Arledge of Kenai to 65-year-old Jess Lobdell of Nikiski, the workshop seemed to have attracted a cross section of peninsula society.
Lobdell declared he lived in the area when Alaska was still a territory and said also he thought slam was a basketball term, a remark that drew laughter that was to continue throughout the workshop.
The first hour was devoted to a discussion about poetry and what slams were. Many people who had written poetry knew nothing about meter or the names of different types of poetry. They didn't know the rules for performing, and a great deal of discussion was given to the idea that a good performance can make even lousy poetry win.
Hamilton lends support to Matt Arledge during the workshop.
Photo by Betsy Rosenberg
"Check your ego at the door," was a rule Hamilton suggested everyone follow at slams if they didn't want to be disappointed.
Steve Schoonmaker of Kasilof said he had been a fisher all his life and just started to write in the last year. He seemed oriented toward political ideas, which made a few people ask him what he had been thinking about all that time on fishing boats.
While still at the workshop, Lobdell rose to perform a poem about how his grandfather had lost the lobe of his right ear.
As he stood on the small stage, wearing suspenders and reading glasses, white bearded, Hamilton commented, "Jess, you should bring that face to every performance. Those glasses, those clothes, it's perfect. You'll be a winner every time."
That evening at Buster's, the performance was augmented by the presence of a small audience. It was decided by everyone at the workshop not to compete, but simply to present all the poetry for the sake of performance and pleasure. People read poems they had just composed that afternoon about Saturday night in Kenai, a theme suggested during the workshop.
The poems, which embraced everything from moose kill to shoplifting to taking baths, had the crowd on the verge of hilarity, with shouting and applause.
Other poems, inspired by raspberries, Earth and strange ideas that almost seemed otherworldly held the crowd.
One of O'Donnell's poem's, entitled "What Would Jesus Do?" was inspired by anger against narrow-mindedness. One line, she said, mentions what would Jesus do if he was afraid to ride in a boat. O'Donnell said when she performed it at another place, someone mentioned to her that Jesus was able to walk on water. This left her mute at the time, because, she said, she never thought of it when she wrote the poem.
When the evening ended, a little girl belonging to the waitress rose to declare she had written poetry and wanted to contribute. Everyone waited to listen while she read her few lines, which was followed by loud applause.
Perhaps the poets will inspire the next generation.
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