Slam Poetry in Muddy Waters transforms onlookers into critics

The Geneseo Slam Poets hosted a local competition at Muddy Waters Coffee House last Thursday to determine which five members would eventually move on to participate in the regional competition at SUNY New Paltz.

Before a throng of students and spectators, eight competing poets recited pieces that explored a wide avenue of genres and themes spanning heritage, growing up, love and sexual identity. Seniors Ingamar Ramirez and Deborah Bertlesman, the events' organizers, joined members Donat De La Cruz, senior, and Elena Buttgereit, junior, as well as spoken word poet and Geneseo alumni Dan Freund and newcomers Colin Withers and Emily Plessas, seniors, and Melyssa Hall, sophomore.

The performances included a touching and provocative examination of body image and a hilarious and pun-filled piece detailing the marriage between math and literature. Each piece of elocution was clever and smooth, an example of sincere rawness and strength that was not only appealing but, more importantly, memorable.

During the competition, the audience was asked to participate in the judging process.  Five impartial listeners were selected from the crowd and given scorecards ranging from 10 to one. According to junior Michael Roff, master of ceremonies, a score of 10 would elicit a reaction close to asking for the poets' hand in marriage, while a one would refer to a poem bad enough to "collectively lower the intelligence level of everyone in the room."

The system provided an effective setup, keeping the audience constantly engaged with the competition's workings. While the crowd booed, cheered and snapped in shows of dissent and support, the judges scored.

Though the evening of poetry was framed as a competition, the atmosphere was never strained or uncomfortable.  By the end of the event, the scores were tossed in favor of everyone winning, according to Bertlesman.

The audience's enthusiastic snaps and applause accompanied the ebb and flow of the poets' voices, creating a gripping and then lilting musicality throughout the night.

When Roff introduced the show, he promised the people clustered on couches, sitting on counters and piled next to pillars on the steps that they would have a "new experience." As each poet performed over the course of the event, the audience was introduced to potent, intelligent and at times even funny themes.

"Slam poetry is about being beautifully vulnerable and asking an audience to do the same," Roff said. It is neither Shakespeare nor John Donne. Originated by Marc Smith in the early '80s, slam poetry – or spoken word poetry – is evocative, emotive and surprisingly lyrical.

"In English classes, we can argue about the authorial intent of a poem for hours," said junior Hannah Schmidt. "In slam poetry, you get to really see and hear how the author's emotions and experiences have shaped their poetry. It's incredibly powerful and honest."