Full-throttle spoken word: National Poetry Slam coming to St. Paul


It’s the Olympics of Poetry. The Super Bowl of Slam. The World Cup of Words. The Tour de Trochee. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. When the National Poetry Slam (NPS) hits St. Paul August 3-7, the city’s going to be infiltrated by hundreds of wordsmiths competing for the grand championship, and only one team will emerge victorious in the cutthroat competition of cacophony.

This will be the second time the National Poetry Slam has taken place in the Twin Cities, and the first time in St. Paul. (The competition was held in Minneapolis in 2002.) Mathew Rucker, the NPS city coordinator and coach of the St. Paul Poetry Slam Soap Boxing team (last year’s NPS champions) said that he placed a bid in early 2007 to bring the 2009 National Competition to St. Paul. While they didn’t get the 2009 bid, last year as he was stepping off stage during the Nationals, the President of NPS pulled him aside and told him he wanted St. Paul to resubmit their bid.

Part of what helped NPS choose St. Paul is that it is a very vibrant, active city with a diverse audience and “lots of really great venues close together,” Rucker said. The competition will take place at venues such as the Artists’ Quarter, Great Waters Brewing Company, Wild Thymes, the Lowry Lab Theater, Pop, Camp, the History Theatre, McNalley Smith Music Auditorium, the Fitzgerald Theater, and the Roy Wilkins Auditorium (where the finals take place).

Poetry Slam teams, who have to be certified with the national organization, compete all year and win points at regional competitions. Rucker said that while there used to be an individual competition, that ended three years ago, so now there is only a team competition. Each poet has three minutes and ten seconds to show their stuff, and then are rated by five judges on a ten-point scale. Like in the Olympics, the low score and high score are dropped so that the final score is between 0-30. Judges are picked randomly from the audience by the MC of the event. MCs are mostly Poetry Slam veterans, said Rucker.

Rucker said a good slam poet is characterized by incredible writing prowess combined with an immaculate performance ability. Judges place equal emphasis on performance and writing, he said. There’s also a lot of strategy involved, he noted: performers need to know what to perform, when, how and why.

There will be three Minnesota teams competing in this year’s finals: Soap Boxing (the St. Paul team that Rucker runs), Slam MN, and the all-female team Punch Out Poetry (POP).

Cole Sarar, the slam-master for POP, said her group is the first officially registered all-women’s slam. (She said that members need to identify themselves as women, so Trans members who view themselves as women are welcome.) Her slam formed this winter, partly because Sarar and others felt the local slam scene was a bit male-dominated.

Sarar has been writing her whole life, but has been doing poetry slams for a little over two years. “I kinda went full throttle into it,” she said. She was a literature major and theater minor at Macalester, and said though she is at heart a literary poet, slam has forced her to think how the audience is digesting her work. “I like that it requires the poetry to be accessible,” she said. “You are reaching audiences that aren’t necessarily reading literary journals.”