Infectious energy filled the Sixth & I Synagogue last Saturday night, as talented poets from across the world competed for their chance at a world title. Snaps, claps, bongos and choruses of “yes” and “mmmhmmms” affirmed the talents of 12 finalists as they fought to earn distinction as the Individual World Poetry Slam Champion.
Poets covered every social issue imaginable. Topics included Miley Cyrus’s appropriation of black culture, the fear of becoming a hashtag at the hands of police, eating disorders, sexuality and Bill Cosby. Poets added weight and power to their delivery by changing decibels, tempo and cadence. Ultimately Emi Mahmoud, representing LoserSlam out of New Jersey, won first place.
Mahmoud, originally from Darfur, Sudan, captivated the crowd with piercing lines like, “You take your politics with lattés, while I take mine with tear gas.” The audience couldn’t help but be moved as she pleaded into the microphone about the deaths of family members at the hands of soldiers and the plight of infants born into a world of chaos.
During her final speech, she admitted that she almost did not attend the poetry competition. The day before her trip to D.C., her grandmother passed away. In spite of this, her friend convinced her that the poetry festival was the place she needed to be. Her winning poem had been written and memorized that day in her family’s honor.
Other finalists included the District's own Rasheed Copeland, who won second place, Christopher Michael representing Killeen Poetry Slam from Killeen, Texas in third place and Mwende "FreeQuency" Katwiwa of Slam New Orleans also tied for third place. Porscha O, the International World Poetry Slam 2014 Champion, did not place this year, but her final poem received a standing ovation.
Steven Willis of Nuyorican Poets Cafe, whose hand motions drove the points of his lines home, brought audience members to their feet before he even finished speaking. When asked how it felt to be up there, Willis said he was “definitely nervous, but honored to be on stage with some of the greatest poets of our time.”
Saturday night’s finals were the culmination of four days of events. Venues around the city hosted a variety of bouts including a Haiku Death Match, The Queer Kids Table and Nerd Open Mic, which served as mini competitions unaffiliated with Saturday’s finale. Writing workshops, and panel discussions also accompanied the poetry readings.
Despite the many offerings of the festival over the course of the week, some poets opted out of participating. Two poets even remained seated in the pews well after the readings ended, transfixed by their emotional magnitude. Security ultimately forced them to leave so the venue could close for the night.
Poet Sean Michael Mulroy struck a particularly intense cord for listeners with his work. Around 2 a.m. on Oct. 9, a small crowd was spilling out of the American Poetry Museum. Mulroy’s voice quivered as he spoke of a tryst between a teenage boy and a married man. The audience stayed silent through the entire reading and broke into thunderous applause upon completion. The poet and the listeners shared the feelings of vulnerability as Mulroy read each word.
After four days of poetic grind, the sight of people still locked in their seats at closing time summed up the Individual World Poetry Slam. To hear some of the poems spoken last week, check out Button Poetry on Youtube. For poetry fans craving more, Busboys & Poets in Brookland offers a Beltway Poetry Slam the last Tuesday of every month.