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The Cloverdale Poetry Slam

November 20, 2007

I spent last week in a sleepy Sonoma Valley town by the name of Cloverdale. Fewer than 7000 people live there but the town has quite a few amenities including a post office, a couple of restaurants, a cafe, a spa, a gym, a bookstore, and a library.

I wandered into the library last Friday evening and got more than I bargained for when I was roped into the judging the local poetry slam. It was the first time I'd ever attended a poetry slam and was quite intrigued by the way in which these things are adjudicated. Basically, the organizers call upon a bunch of random people to do the job. Each judge is given a black marker and a stack of paper and asked to score each poet's three-minute effort from one - ten. No one asked my name or what I did for a living. The only qualification I needed to be a judge, it seemed, was that I wasn't planning on reading out any poems myself.

I sheepishly took my place at a long table with the other judges. To my left was a teenage black girl in lots of denim; to my right, a hippy-looking 40-something white woman who kept yapping with delight every time a new contestant took the stage. The noise she made was quite unusual. It was a very high-pitched "Prowwwwww!!" Further down the row to my left was a middle-aged white guy who slumped in his chair and wore what looked like several jackets. His eyes peered glassily out from under a beanie. Further down the row to my right was a lady in her 60s or 70s. Her skin was like the surface of a walnut.

The event started off haphazardly. The host, an enthusiastic, bespectacled chap in his early 30s whose name I can't recall, but for the purposes of this description I'll dub David looked at the sign-up list and called out the first name on the list. An extremely elderly lady in a wheelchair whom I shall call Dora slowly extended a frail arm.
"Hi Dora, please step forward and read out your poem," said David.
"I don't have a poem," said Dora after a moment's hesitation.
"You don't have a poem? But you put your name on the list, Dora."
"Yes."
"Well is there something you'd like to share with us from memory?"
"Erm, no."
"OK. So you just put your name on the list for fun then?"
Dora looked confused. David smiled and pressed onwards with the second name on the list.

A few local poets got up and read out some of their work. This part of the event wasn't being judged. It was just a warm-up session, to get people in the mood. I don't recall much about any of these efforts, except that of a teenage girl who, egged on by a couple of her friends sitting in the front row taking snapshots of their poetry-loving pal with a pink camera-phone, got up to read a four-line poem which began "Roses are red, violets are blue," and ended "I love you." I'm glad I didn't have to judge that one.

When the official competition began, roughly 10 poets shared their work. "Prowwwww!!" squeaked the lady to my right every time one of them get up and sat down. Most of the contestants were white, middle-aged men. Most of the poems they read weren't very good. One guy fancied himself as William Blake. Another read poems like he was reading out a screenplay for a 1950s western or sci-fi movie. A third thought he was Jack Kerouac. All the lines in his very short poems (which he read off small index cards held together by paper clips) came out in the same way -- like he was punctuating them with the sound of a bongo drum. Other contestants included an extremely earnest 20-something Latino guy, who got very riled up while reading his sad verses about hating the image in the mirror before him and missing out on love. "I guess we have one thing in common," chimed David after this poet had read his mirror poem. "We both write poetry when we're depressed." My favorite poet was a middle-aged woman with a foreign accent which was hard to pin down, but at a guess I'd say she came from Scandinavia. Her poetry was often humorous. She liked animal imagery. Best of all, her words seemed to come from the heart.

I'm used to receiving hate mail for my reviews in SF Weekly. But it was strange to get boo'd at by the audience at one point for not being as enthusiastic in my scoring as the rest of the judges. I thought I was being very generous by awarding an 8.5 (out of 10) to my favorite poem of the evening. The lowest score I gave was 5.5 (this was when I got boo'd) and I thought that was a bit too high. But everyone else awarded 9s and 10s all the time. This seemed a little over the top. Still, my favorite poet won the event, so I felt vindicated by the time I left the library.

I'm intrigued by the whole community judging thing. The idea of asking anyone to be a judge is curious. Does the fact that I'm a professional arts critic put me in a better position to weigh up the work of these Cloverdale poets? It certainly makes me a harder judge. It probably also makes me a fairer judge, less likely to be swayed by a middle-aged man's John Wayne impression than others perhaps. This may or may not be a good thing in the context of a rural poetry slam though.

I think the only way anyone can judge a poet's efforts is by asking ourselves, does the poem seem to come from a real place in the poet or is he or she being fake? This was the tool I used to judge the work in Cloverdale. You can apply this criteria to any work of art, I think, regardless of whether the artist is a seasoned pro with an international reputation or a hobbyist scrawling verses on the kitchen table in between cooking dinner and taking out the trash.

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