At the fifth annual Billings Grand Slam poetry event next week, you can expect to encounter high sentiments, lovely words — and fierce competition.
“People are there to see the blood sport,” said James Hickman, one of the organizers of the slam.
This year, for the first time, the poetry slam is being held in conjunction with the High Plains BookFest, which will run Friday through Sunday at various downtown venues.
The poetry competition was founded in 2010 by Hickman and Pete Tolton, both then working on The Rook, the literary magazine published at Montana State University Billings.
They organized the first slam under under the experienced tutelage of Dave Caserio, a performance poet introduced to them by Tami Haaland, a poet and English professor at MSUB. Over the years, Hickman, Tolton and various co-conspirators have staged slams at Venture Theater (now NOVA Center for the Performing Arts), Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. and a vacant storefront on Montana Avenue.
This year, the Grand Slam will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 22, in the Yellowstone Art Museum’s Visible Vault at 505 N. 26th St. Tickets are $7 and the event starts at 6:30 p.m.
Hickman said the original plan was to have the slam on Thursday the 23rd, so that a panel of Canadian writers in town for the book fest could act as judges. But in an enviable instance of having too many literary affairs at once in Billings, Sherman Alexie, the author of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” is speaking that night at Rocky Mountain College.
In the alternative, they have asked some local literary figures to help judge the contest. They include, so far, novelist Russell Rowland; Patrick Wilson, director of the Sacrifice Cliff Theatre Company; and Noel Hawke, the longtime administrative assistant in the MSUB English Department, now retired.
“She’s pretty much just a really cool lady,” Laura-Ashlee Twiford said of Hawke. Twiford, an Alaskan majoring in English education at MSUB, is helping organize the slam. She was chosen to take part in two national poetry slams during high school in Anchorage.
She said her role is to help make sure the slam is truly a performance, rather than a lecture or a reading. She said the slam had been drifting in the direction of becoming a “scholarly event,” so she wanted to bring in “veteran members who are capable of getting people excited.”
One of those veterans is the defending slam champ, Anna Paige, who will act as the emcee at the event next week. She will also offer up a “sacrificial poem” to help set the tone and to give the judges a guinea pig on which to sharpen their critical acumen.
Hickman is happy to have the female support.
“I wanted to get more girls involved because it was becoming kind of a boys club,” he said.
Corby Skinner, director of the YMCA Writer’s Voice and an organizer of the High Plains BookFest, said the partnership with the poetry slam was a great match.
Because festival participants are writers who have been nominated for awards, there are fewer and fewer local authors, he said.
Also, Skinner said, “I wanted to have something that appealed to a younger audience and was more participatory.”
Twiford will be the host and Hickman will be the “slam master,” with music by DJ Exodus. In addition to the poetry competition, community members have been asked to read their favorite poems as part of the national Favorite Poem Project. Readers so far, in addition to Hawke, are novelist Craig Lancaster and Tom Nurmi, an assistant English professor at MSUB.
Slam competitors are Doug Oltrogge, Dave Overturf, Kate Olp, Jerry Clark, Jake Music and Crystal Rondeaux. Other potential competitors can write to Hickman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The competition is divided into three rounds. All five judges will vote on each performance, with the highest and lowest scores in each round thrown out. The performances are ranked on a scale of 1 to 10, with decimal points.
“We like the decimal points because there’s less likelihood of a tie,” Hickman said.
Three finalists advance to the third round and the winner is the one with the most cumulative points. Audience members are encouraged to match the enthusiasm of the contestants.
David Crisp, editor of the Billings Outpost and a judge last year, described the performances as “individual acts of naked courage.” He continued: “Even musicians have guitars to hide themselves behind, but poets have nothing except their own words, which they draw from places within themselves that rarely see the light of day.”
Paige said the judges definitely take the content of the poems into account, but at a slam, “it’s more about the verse and the way it sounds in your mouth.”
When she competed, Paige said, she would work on each poem for days and weeks, obsessively trying them out, cutting them and rewriting them as she went along.
“It’s so important to be alone with it and speak it out loud,” she said.
Hickman said there’s no reason the editing can’t continue during the competition, since the judges don’t know the poems. A poet can change a word or a whole line depending on audience reaction — or to make up for a lapse in memory.
“If you’re not afraid of making mistakes, you can really roll with it,” he said.
The winner will receive a cash prize, based on the amount collected at the door, but that’s not all.
“You get to have that title for rest of the year,” Hickman said.