Steel City Slam gives participants creative voice
Published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 23:10
East Liberty’s Shadow Lounge was filled with words of love, lust, heartache and politics last Tuesday night, Oct. 16, as the Steel City Slam held their monthly gathering.
The Steel City Slam is a competition started by the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective in the mid ‘90s with the help of a non-profit organization called Suncrumbs. In 2003, Suncrumbs ceased to be an active non-profit, but the Steel City Slam has been holding monthly events at the Shadow Lounge in East Liberty ever since, according to the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective website. The event takes place on the third Tuesday of every month.
“I am an unsafe skyline and a loaded gun,” screamed William James, 30, of Clarion as he stood with his hands in his pockets atop the two foot stage.
James had wanted to be a writer since the age of 14, but only began slamming in 2009.
“It opens up an avenue and a soapbox for people,” James said. “You get an audience that’s actually interested.”
“A poetry slam,” according to Poetry Slam, Inc. “is a competitive event in which poets perform their work and are judged by members of the audience.”
“[It is] performative,” said event organizer and University of Pittsburgh professor Adrianna Ramirez. “For the stage. Slam is about immediacy. Slam is instant gratification.”
The competition is broken up into three rounds. The first round features 12 poets, the second features six and the last round features the three poets with the top scores from both rounds. This month’s winner was 35-year-old Joe Limer of San Diego, Calif., who, for the first time in Steel City Slam history, received the high score of 30 in all three of his rounds.
Limer, a professor of political science at Palomar Community College, has been writing for as long as he can remember, but considers himself to be a “closet poet.” Drawing most of his inspiration from social and political issues, Limer unleashed a whirlwind of a poem in the final round of the competition about the current status of the American education system and the ridiculously high price of student loans.
“When we sacrifice free thought for profit,” said Limer in a fast talking style, “40 acres and a mule becomes as much an illusory reparation as career counseling. There is an irony our teaching degrees call us master.”
At the Steel City Slam, five audience members are given whiteboards and rate the performing poet on a scale from zero to 10. The poets have three minutes to perform their poetry and are given a penalty if they exceed that limit, but many poets believe that the points awarded are just for show.
"It’s just a gimmick,” James said, adding that he believes that the use of points feeds on our
American need for competition. “The points are not the point; the poetry is the point.”
Kevin May, 21, of Squirrel Hill, or Phil Osophical, as he is known in the poetry world, has a similar view about the point system.
“It encourages everyone to be on their A-game,” May said.
The Pittsburgh Poetry Collective works to bring in feature poets from across the country to perform at the Steel City Slam. This month’s feature poet was John “Survivor” Blake, who, according to his most recent book, was nominated in 2011 for his first Pushcart Prize, an award for the best in small presses, in 2011.
Blake, 42, grew up in New York City but currently lives in Richmond, Va. Blake presently travels the country performing his original poems and teaches poetry workshops. Much of Blake’s poetry revolves around his time in prison, the violence he has seen and his former drug addictions. Blake received the nickname “Survivor” from a therapist after hearing his life story. Blake left his well-paying job as a restaurant cook to pursue his poetry full time.
“It’s therapeutic,” Blake said, “… the only person to tell you the truth is a poet.”
Blake held a small poetry workshop before the event began. Young writers were given prompts to begin their poems and only had a short amount of time to write. Writers could then share their poems and offer critiques.
He believes that in order to be a writer, one must first call themselves a writer.
"If the worst thing that happens to me is becoming a poet,” Blake said, “then I’m pretty blessed.”