The sun was shining, the fish were running and a bunch of Alaskans opted to spend a Friday evening listening to poetry? In Kenai?
The cosmic occasion was the central Kenai Peninsula's first official poetry slam. A sell-out crowd gathered at the Old Town Village Restaurant for an intense evening.
A slam combines poetry with live theater. Participants read or recite verse, exploring the power of language, the music of the human voice and the electricity of communicating with an audience.
To many in the room, the slam was a new experience. To some poets who signed up to read, it was a shock. However, to most present, it was an evening of exhilaration and discovery.
"They call it a poetry slam because the audience gets involved," emcee Peter Porco explained to the crowd at the beginning.
A slam is not the same as a poetry reading. It is a place for humor, rants and eccentricities, rather than for sensitive sentiments and delicate lyrics. It can be raw and raucous. The muse involved is akin to Kerouac rather than Keats.
Many excellent poems are utterly unsuited for the slam environment, as some people discovered to their hurt. But the right kind of piece gives off sparks and leaves listeners howling for more.
Porco drafted five volunteers from the audience to serve as judges for the competition. The only requirement was that they not know any of the readers.
"You do not have to know anything about poetry to be a judge. You only have to know what you like," he said.
"It is a competition that is judged on the spot."
Nineteen people signed up to read their verse. Each got three minutes at the microphone on the makeshift stage.
Based on the scores, nine advanced to round two. Five went to the third round. Points accumulated for all three rounds and, at the end, cash prizes were awarded for the top three scores.
The winner was Kima Malik Hamilton from Anchorage. Carol Ford of Nikiski was second, and Bruce Farnsworth of Anchorage was third.
Hamilton also won a second poetry slam Saturday evening in Homer.
He cut a dramatic figure on stage: a tall black man with shoulder-length braids and a voice on fire. Only four months in Alaska, he is eating up the fledgling slam poetry circuit with his charismatic delivery.
"I just love to be heard," he said after the show. "It's like instant gratification."
Hamilton came to Alaska to visit his brother, fell in love with the great land's beauty and resolved to stay. A college student, he plans to transfer to the University of Alaska and pursue studies in anthropology and mass media, he said.
He is from Georgia via Philadelphia, where as a youth he created freestyle rap and hip hop lyrics. He left that early work behind, but it bequeathed him a confidence, fluidity and rhythm that underscore his more mature verse.
At Friday's show, Hamilton put all the ingredients together: wit and weight, earnestness, eloquence and a strong, strong positive energy.
Ford, well known in the central peninsula for her work in theater, ventured onto new ground reading reflective poetry.
Most who chose that genre Friday were unable to draw the boisterous slam audience into their intimate mental space. But Ford, a practiced storyteller, succeeded.
Later, she said she had never been to a slam before and was so nervous about reading that she could not eat her dinner. She was amazed she ended up a winner.
"I was surprised how much fun it was. I was impressed by the variety and styles and the number of people who came out for it," she said.
Farnsworth, another Anchorage poet, managed to skewer American society in savagely funny and wildly original observations.
The other finalists were Jackie Carr and Patrick McLeod of Anchorage.
The event was organized by the Alaska Poetry League, a nonprofit that organizes slams and promotes poetry, and by the Kenai Library Book Club.
Some in the audience raised eyebrows at the six participants from Anchorage. The visitors are veterans of regular poetry slams in Anchorage, and some served on Alaska's first state team, which went to national competition last year in Rhode Island. This year's state team already was chosen at a tournament at the Fly By Night Club in May and is raising funds to attend competition in Seattle.
Richard King, who lives in Kenai, said, "It was like having a bunch of pros stacked up against the local boys in a basketball game."
He and Ford said it would be nice to have a more mellow venue for peninsula residents to share and encourage their poetry in addition to the high-energy poetry slam.
"The slam concept was new to me," he said.
Alaska Spring! by Carol Ford
The Promise By Kima Malik Hamilton
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