Last month I was in Charlotte, North Carolina for the 2012 National Poetry Slam. This was my 5th Nationals and my 4th being there on the Las Vegas Slam Team, and I was not disappointed by it. The poetry was breathtaking, the people were super nice, and I met so many new poet friends and connected with some old ones. It was probably my second-favorite Nats (after ’05 in Albuquerque, AKA “Half-A-Cookie”).
Ever since I attended Clarion in 2007, I’ve had this strange interconnection with being a poet who slams along with all the lessons I learned in those 6 weeks in San Diego with a group of amazing writers and instructors.
After the 2006 Slam Team, I took some time off from competing and just concentrated on organizing as well as writing on fiction. I was still writing and performing poetry, but I was also still revising my novel and wanted to write more stories in prose form – not to mention that there was some local slam drama developing, which just made me want to work on my short story game.
So with the push of writerly friends and my boyfriend at the time, I applied to Clarion in the early part of 2007 with one new story that I’d written in about a month and another that was a birthday present for a friend a year earlier.
To be honest, saying that that point in my writing life was a transition would not state how absolutely fucking lost I felt then. I essentially gave a scene I’d worked for 4 years to help build to people who were more concerned with shine than substance, running LV Slam into the ground. I felt like I had to keep re-writing my novel, and short stories? Pshaw. That’s rich. There was something in me who believed in my fiction writing, but because I’d been so focused on novels, I wasn’t sure if applying to Clarion was even going to be worth it. But I did it anyway, ’cause really, I had nothing to lose. I was so used to getting rejection letters from agents and publishers that it was going to turn into another piece of paper in the rejected pile.
Somehow, I got into Clarion. While I was there, I wondered what I was doing there. Even 5 years on, I still have no idea why they let me in. Maybe because I could complete my sentences? I don’t know.
Being in that group of people, during that time (I’d just turned 29 before I went there, so the whole “Turning Thirty With Capital Letters” was definitely on my mind), and writing so much in those 6 weeks really reinforced my love for the word, regardless if it were a breathtaking short story, a riveting novel, or a poem that made you collapse on the floor. This was what I was Good At.
Fast forward to 2009, when I was still involved in the local poetry scene but was really worried about slam and whether or not anybody wanted to be involved. I’d written a bunch of new poems at the end of 2008 into the beginning of 2009, so I was productive, but wasn’t really feeling the urge to jump slam back up again. The people who took over after I bowed out really burned the sucka to the ground (which, really, even at the time I was totally okay with – it was my first real test to see if I believed in The Tower theory of destroying to build back up). You just have to let things burn to cinders before figuring out how to make a golem with the ashes.
So I was hosting Seldom Seen Poets with Hannah, and folks were asking me if I was interested in starting another slam in Vegas, which I wasn’t sure about. Eventually, I ended up semi-retiring from hosting the weekly reading, but didn’t mind the idea of hosting a monthly slam if there was enough momentum to get it going. But I was not interested in competing then. It wasn’t that I hated slam or didn’t think I was good enough, but I just wasn’t feeling the fire to compete. You know, like we all go through our phases.
(Also, I got my first publishing credit in 2009, and it was a milestone that I felt like took forever to hit. But it was my second major milestone with fiction that I’d hit after Clarion, so slam was really the last thing on my mind.)
So when folks helped me start a season once a month at Seldom Seen in the late summer of 2010, my heart was broken – hard – from a breakup, and I needed something to focus on, so hosting and organizing a monthly slam was probably the best thing for me to do – I could get out of the house, get inspired to write my truth (even if people wouldn’t hear it), and it was something that didn’t feel like a chore to do. (Because let’s admit it – while I love my poetry family, a weekly hosting gig can take its toll on your sanity after awhile.) So I hosted the monthly slam and didn’t have any problems (other than flotsam and jetsam from the breakup).
Since then, I’ve gone through different phases depending on what I feel like writing – and oddly, depending on where I’m at in my work life (or lack thereof). There are times when I’m writing poetry and performing and that’s where my head’s at. Other times I’m working on a short story or novel because I’m just not really feeling poetry.
But there are those 6 weeks – between the end of June and the beginning of August – where I’m in both fiction and poetry realms, because I’m usually working on something for the Clarion Write-A-Thon and either coaching or practicing for the slam team. And it gives me a way to intertwine both of these kinds of writing.
One of my biggest problems in writing short stories is that I tend to write very pretty prose but that doesn’t seem to have a plot. Maybe I’m trying to write some kind of emotional plot in there, but readers tend to want action-y plots, so my stories just fall flat for folks. (And I got into Clarion how again?)
But the thing about writing performance-oriented poetry is that you’re forced to show action – whether that means using more action words, or literally making your body do actions onstage. One of the best things I was reminded of at Clarion was that when you’re describing action, try to be as specific as possible. And being able to take that to revising poems is just as important – if not more so.
You have to pick your words carefully. In everything. I even take that advice to work projects. Pick your words carefully. It’s all in your intent, and the words you choose better be the intent.