New partnerships expand, enliven poetry slam


Bryce Turcotte

Doug Oltrogge, seen here during the 2014 Grand Slam, will be the subject of a short film shown at this year’s slam.

The High Plains Grand Slam, a competitive poetry-reading event, just keeps getting bigger and better.

This year’s slam, set for Thursday, Oct. 6, at the MoAv Coffee House, 2501 Montana Ave., will be the first one officially registered with Poetry Slam Inc., a nationwide organization, and it will feature a $250 prize for the slam champion.

The slam, which starts at 6:30 p.m., will also include the screening of a short film by Bryce Turcotte, showing past slam winner Doug Oltrogge reciting one of his poems.

And the organizers of the slam, who have been trying to encourage more women to enter the competition, say they have succeeded: Five of the 10 competitors already registered are women.

On top of that, said James Dean Hickman, one of the organizers, “We’ve got some really cool judges, and they’re not from Montana.”

The slam was founded by Hickman and Pete Tolton and was known as the Montana Grand Slam before becoming affiliated with the High Plains BookFest a couple of years ago.

Prizes used to be based on how much money was raised through paid admission. This year, the Writer’s Voice, the main sponsor of the High Plains BookFest, is funding the $250 first prize and MoAv is not charging rent, so admission to the slam is free for the first time. Second- and third-place poets will be given prizes of $50.

The involvement of the High Plains BookFest also made it possible to have a distinguished panel of judges this year. They are:

♦ Aaron Rosen, director of Cultural Projects at Rocky Mountain College and a former research fellow at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University.

♦ Allan Safarik, a poet from Saskatchewan who has published 16 books of poetry.

♦ Rolli, a poet, children’s book author and illustrator from Regina, Saskatchewan.

Also contributing to the bigger-and-better theme of this year’s slam was a series of Poetry Slam Workshops sponsored by Pulitzer Out Loud, a collaboration of Humanities Montana and the Pulitzer Prize Foundation.

The workshops were led by Dave Caserio, Danell Jones, Anna Paige and Nate Petterson. Paige and Petterson are both past winners of the local poetry slam, and Petterson is the emcee of this year’s slam.

The earlier workshops focused on honing the skills of people interested in slams, with tips on developing content and connecting with an audience. This Saturday, the final workshop—scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. at MoAv—will be an open-mic night, where poets can practice the skills they learned in the workshops or prepare for their appearances at the Grand Slam.

Tolton, one of the founders of the slam, is not helping with the organization this year because he will be one of the competitors. He is hoping to be the first two-time Grand Slam Champion, something attempted only one other time—by Linds Sanders in 2011.

Oltrogge, another past slam champ, will be reading and performing his poem, “The Traveler,” in Turcotte’s short film, which will be shown during the Grand Slam.

All the competing poets should be sounding better this year, thanks to Oliver Barber of Heartbreaker Studio, who will be providing “over-the-top sound production for the show,” Hickman said. Barber also plans to produce an 80-minute best-of-the-slam CD.

Petterson, the emcee, promises to keep things lively, amping up the crowd and encouraging people to boo or cheer for the judges’ scores. Some previous slams have tended to be a bit too sedate and respectful, Petterson said.

“I hope to break all that nonsense,” he said.

He also hopes to play up rivalries, between the competitors and, possibly, between Billings and Bozeman. Petterson said he entered a poetry slam in Bozeman last February, without telling his hosts that he was the defending slam champion in Billings.

He won the Bozeman slam and never did tip his hand until recently, when he got a hold of some of the Bozeman poets and encouraged them to take part in the pre-slam workshops in Billings. Three of them attended a workshop last weekend, Petterson said, and as many as four Bozeman poets might enter the High Plains Grand Slam.

Hickman and Petterson said they hope to tap into that sense of inter-city rivalry on the way to creating a statewide or regional slam in the future. Petterson said that in addition to Bozeman, he knows of slams taking place in Butte, Missoula and Great Falls as well.

Hickman said the High Plains Grand Slam’s recent designation as a registered event through Poetry Slam Inc. means the group can accept tax-deductible donations and can send winners on to sanctioned events, including the National Poetry Slam.

The 10 competitors registered so far for the High Plains Grand Slam are Pete Tolton, Kate Restad, Jerry Clark, Molly Ouellette, Jake Music, Rhiannon Schiller, Sam Brodson, Ashley Warren, Wes Urbaniak, Hugh Healow and Jawney Love.

Paige, a past slam winner and a teacher in the recent workshops, said she was encouraged that nearly every workshop was filled to capacity.

“People are interested in their voice, in how they communicate with their community,” she said. “Slam is one avenue, but what people seemed most interested in is learning how to tell their story and find an audience.”

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