On Poetry Slam Heats, Cheese and Scarcity

A few of you have asked how the Australian Poetry Slam competition is going, so I thought I’d just post an update here.

First, for those who aren’t familiar with how a poetry slam works, here’s the low down. Twenty contestants per heat, five random judges are chosen from the audience to give scores out of ten, and poets are drawn out of a hat to determine the order of which they’ll compete. That’s the basic gist anyway. In this particular competition, there are five heats — the two highest scorers from each heat go through to the state finals — the two winners from there go on to compete at the national final in Sydney.

The thing I need to point out about random audience judging is firstly, the judges may never have been to a poetry slam in their life — like, they could have literally walked in off the street looking for a Friday night drink and the slam just happened to be at their favourite bar and they know nothing about poetry. Flawed, but consistent across all slams.

Secondly, it’s a well-known fact among slammers that the judging always begins conservatively and gets progressively better throughout the heat; either because judges are saving their best scores in anticipation of what the slam might bring, or because by the end of the slam they’ve had a few more drinks and OMG THIS POEM IS ABOUT CHEESE AND I LOVE CHEESE SO TENS ALL ROUND! So, everyone knows if you’re unlucky enough to be drawn first or second (and probably even third), it’s instant death. You’re not going to get through. You’re just not. At least, I know of not a single person who has been drawn first or second and made it through, ever.

So, with that in mind.

The first slam I ever competed in a couple of years ago now, I was drawn first. I’d never even been to a slam, let alone competed in one. I had no idea how they even worked or what was really expected of me, and yet, there I was. First on stage trying not to toss my cookies. Initiation at its finest. Also, apparently, the foretelling of my destiny.

Because I kid you not when I say EVERY. SINGLE. SLAM I have competed in since, I have been drawn first or second. Like, to the point it’s actually become a running joke. Like, to the point where I think there is actually no fucking way I could be drawn first again — only to sure enough, be drawn first again.

So you can imagine the devastation when having competed in two heats in the last two weeks, this exact thing has happened. It happened at the first heat. Disappointed, I turned up to the second heat this weekend thinking I just couldn’t be drawn at the start again — like, surely there are just no odds that atrocious. And yet. AND YET.

I was drawn first.

It would almost be laughable, if it weren’t so absolutely heartbreaking.

I have to say, it nearly crushed me this time, to the point I could have easily just walked out and not bothered with my performance. I can’t even explain how it feels to drive 800km to compete in a heat you know is over before it’s even begun. There was a moment of having to dig exceptionally deep and get on stage in spite of how I was feeling; where I literally had to remind myself of these words as I walked on stage:

“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” ~ Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird

So I saw it through and performed the best I could (although I struggled this time, I’ll admit), then sat back in my seat and wondered whether I would even bother staying for the rest of the heat. It would have been easy to justify leaving at that point, knowing I was already out of the competition. No-one else has driven 800km to be here. No-one else has a four hour drive home. No-one else won’t get home until 9pm to see their kids for the first time this weekend. No-one else here was drawn first.

And sure, all that was probably true. But I also knew every other person there had worked just as hard as me to be there. Every other person had poured all they had into their poem and performance; they had all shown just as much courage and vulnerability and determination. They were all sitting there, hearts thumping in their chest, nerves on edge, holding their breath with fear and anticipation waiting for their name to be drawn. They were all there, with a hope and a dream, just as I was.

And to me, that’s what it’s about.

It’s a competition, yes. But more than that, it’s a community. It’s a room full of like-minded people coming together to share an experience. And I can either be threatened, jealous and competitive of others, or I can show encouragement, support, and the willingness to uphold those around me knowing we’re all striving toward the same destination. We won’t all make it there together. But what a community we build when we can put aside our own pride and ego and cheer for those who get there before us.

In saying that, I can’t say I wasn’t completely gutted to have been drawn first again; I was. And I’m not for one second saying if I wasn’t drawn first then I’d have received one of the highest scores or made it through or whatever. There’s no predictability or guarantee of outcome at all with these events; the entire thing is subjective to so many different factors. But there is a devastation in being drawn first (or second) every time and never knowing if you could’ve made it through, given a fairer chance. It’s hard not to grapple with the what-if’s and if-only’s and would-it-have-made-any-difference-if’s.

There are still three more heats to go, but I’m not sure if I’ll continue at this point. Whilst I have put everything aside for the last six weeks and worked exceptionally hard on my pieces, there’s a point where I have to be realistic about what time, energy and money I can pour into what is essentially just a competition. 800km is a long way to drive each week just to get drawn first each time. Which you’d think would be unlikely. I walk in every time thinking there’s no way it could happen again. But it turns out it can, and does. At least, for me. Maybe the universe just knows best on this one.

There’s some grief in considering not going back for another heat; already today I feel lost not knowing what to do with myself after investing so much into this to now walk away from it. But I know it’s not over, as such. There’s always next year. There’s always another slam. There’s always another open mic and festival and competition. We get so caught in fomo thinking these days — that feeling of HAVING TO BE DOING THE THING HERE AND NOW OR WE WILL MISS OUT AND DISAPPEAR INTO AN OBLIVION OF INVISIBILITY FOREVER.

It’s a scarcity thing; the fear there isn’t enough room for us all and we have to fight for our position and hustle to be seen and prove we are worthy of the space we inhabit. Like, feeling if I don’t get through to the state finals this year, I’ve failed. I’m insignificant. There won’t be another chance. I’ll get left behind. If I don’t make it through now I never will. Etc etc.

But sometimes our best laid plans don’t work out as we hope. Surrendering to that is a quiet rebellion against that mindset of scarcity; not forcing things to happen in our time and having to strive and hustle for fear of being left behind, but just embracing the surrender and letting our ideals go and accepting things will unfold as they do. Our season may not be now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t come at all.

So, I’m taking some days to regroup and refocus and decide if I’ll continue competing this year, or not. It isn’t defeat if I don’t. It’s surrender and acceptance of an outcome; it’s knowing the world hasn’t seen the best of me yet but by god, it sure as hell will. Sometime. Maybe. One elusive day when I don’t get drawn first.

There’s still plenty of time ahead for me yet.

6 thoughts on “On Poetry Slam Heats, Cheese and Scarcity

  1. I like your poetry. I liked your poem on Saturday. You’re a winner simply for having the courage to put your joys, your perceptions, your shadows and your splinters into the public arena. And I’m glad I got to hear your poem, spoken by you. Thankyou.

  2. If your name keeps being drawn out first, I am happy to direct all of my lottery ticket purchases through you. Fifty-fifty split on the winnings!

    But, seriously, as you say, there are many factors that can affect the outcome of the slam. It doesn’t mean that the competition is fair, and it doesn’t mean that the best poets make it through the heats. You obviously have a talent for poetry, and writing, and I hope that the right people recognise and acknowledge that.

    Thanks for your awesome words.

  3. I, like you, am in my own struggle for a dream. Some days I wake up and wonder if it is worth it. When I feel like that, I sink back into tried and true habits (journal, pray, give) that have helped me stay the course in the past. I am not sure if perseverance is smart but it is all I know. Your words help me see it is okay to regroup – “So, I’m taking some days to regroup and refocus and decide if I’ll continue competing this year, or not. It isn’t defeat if I don’t. It’s surrender and acceptance of an outcome; it’s knowing the world hasn’t seen the best of me yet but by god, it sure as hell will.” Thank you

    1. Thank you Ginger. It’s so hard to keep pushing towards our goals some days when they seem impossibly out of reach but I think without a goal to strive toward we can just as easily lose hope.

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