Slam Nation Hits Oakland
Get ready. A fierce spat of dueling words is coming to Oakland, California for the first time ever and the city will never be the same.
It’s been 25 years since the National Poetry Slam! started across the bay in San Francisco and the poetry competition hasn’t been back to the bay since the 1990s.
Next month, the slam competition returns home for its silver anniversary and for the first time to Oakland.
An estimated 500 poets representing a record number of 72 slam teams from across the U.S. and Canada – seven from the Bay Area – will verbally battle it out for five days, August 5 – 9, in front of thousands of fans for the National Poetry Slam! trophy.
This year, the poetry competition features all-female slam team, the Nuyorican, from New York’s Nuyorican Poets Café; new San Francisco team New Sh!t Squad and the Last Chance Squad.
The New Sh!t Squad will perform poetry only written during July and the Last Chance Poetry team will be created the eve before finals to compete.
Six Bay Area veteran slammers –Daphne Gottlieb, Jamie DeWolf, Joyce Lee, Meliza Bañales (a.k.a. Missy Fuego), Mesej 1, and Shawn William –are being honored as the faces of the 25th Anniversary of the National Poetry Slam, representing the diversity of the Bay Area’s slam poetry community.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for Oakland to showcase itself as a gem in the Bay Area celebrating arts, celebrating community, celebrating our love for this city through the power of voice,” says Maureen Benson, volunteer host city co-director of the National Poetry Slam!.
Mona, who is Slam Master of the San Francisco Slam and one of the Bay Area organizers and community outreach coordinator for NPS, agrees.
“We are extraordinarily diverse artist community and to showcase that to the national poetry circuit, that everyone’s voices are being represented, that’s important,” says Mona, who is hosting the “Take Back the Night Women’s Open-Mic.”
Sheila E, co-founder of Elevate Oakland and the Elevate Hope Foundation, agrees.
“This city has set the stage to introduce even more gifted youth with the potential to impact our world. The National Poetry Slam! is showcasing some amazing young poets,” says singer and Oakland native Sheila E. “It encompasses some of the most artistically creative and talented people in the nation.”
In turn, Dahled Jeffries, co-director of the poetry competition, is excited to share Oakland with his “poetry family.”
“It makes me very excited and very proud to be able to show Oakland some of the most talented spoken word artists in the world,” says longtime Oakland poet Dahled, who is proud to show off the city as well as have the city serve as a stage for local and visiting poets. “The folks that we are bringing in are just incredibly talented. It excites me that they are going to be on the stages here and bringing their energy to the folks of the town.”
Dahled will also be competing with his team, the Oakland Slam Team.
25 Years: The Power of Art
A former high school principle and English teacher, Maureen, who became involved in the East Bay poetry scene after she moved to Oakland 15 years ago, believes that the duration of the competition for a quarter of a century exemplifies the power of art.
“It celebrates just how powerful art is and the power of voice is in each of us,” says Maureen, pointing out that not only has the festival survived: its thrived.
“It has exponentially grown into the largest festival of its kind. There is absolutely nothing like this on this scale anywhere on the planet,” says Maureen.
Dahled agrees, pointing out that when the slam competition started in the 1990s in San Francisco there was originally two teams and an individual poet. When San Francisco hosted third nationals a couple of years later there were 16 teams of four poets, he says. Today, slam is very different.
Once a bastion of boys, slam has become a place where anyone on the fringe of society – people with disabilities, people of color, queers, youth and women – is welcome to attempt to master the art of verbal sparring. If their words are deft with intelligence and wit they can potentially become a champion.
But the poetry competition is more than the sport or words. Throughout the five days in Oakland attendees will enjoy more than 80 themed workshops, open mics, and showcases including hip hop, Haiku, Latin, Asian, queer, women, youth and more. Every night there will be late night entertainment, including an Erotica Slam and Dirty Haiku Battle and for the feminists a Take Back the Night Women’s Open-Mic, as well as sober spaces, such as trivia night. Youth workshops are free for people 14 – 19.
Maureen and Dahled touted the breadth of options for everyone from health and wellness events to workshops to competition.
“We have stuff for every different kind of person, every strip of person there is,” says Dahled. “Come out we’ve got something for you.”
That’s what Maureen, who isn’t a poet, but has supported the poets community, loves about it.
“One of the things that I love about this community is the fact that poetry speaks to everyone. There’s amazing performances in poems that speaks to so many different perspectives: indigenous folk, Latino folk, Black folk … and then there is the perspective of gender, for sexual orientation … there are a million more perspectives,” says Maureen. “To create a community that is a space for so many powerful perspectives, particularly so many people that have been marginalized.”
“That has been really attractive to me. There has been absolutely something in this for everyone regardless what your experience has been in the world, regardless of how you see the world,” continues Maureen. “There is an amazing opportunity to learn from a perspective that isn’t yours. It’s an amazing opportunity to see yourself and learn about others who have had a different experience than you. It’s a very unique space that I have not ever experienced anywhere else.”
What’s Happening at Slam?
Maureen and Dahled are excited about San Francisco’s New Sh!t Squad, the Nuyorican Poets Café all-woman team, and the Last Chance Slam Team.
Dahled points out that it’s the first time that the Nuyorican Poets Café has had an all-woman team. While the team isn’t the first all-women’s team to compete at the National Poetry Slam!, it is a rarity and unique.
“That is exciting because slam sometimes tends to be a male dominated thing, sometimes but not always,” he says.
What is new is bringing fresh material prepared a month before the competition, like what the New Sh!t Squad is doing.
“Everything that they will be bringing to the stage will have been written within just a couple of weeks before nationals,” says Dahled. They are all just phenomenal poets.
Maureen is excited about the youth programs, “Shout it Out!,” the youth workshop series which pairs up youth with some of the nations famous and most revered master poetry teachers, and Aya de Leon, Michelle Lee from “Youth Speaks,” she says.
For late night entertainment, she’s excited about the “Erotica Slam and Dirty Haiku Battle,” the all-female slam team, the Nuyorican,and the “Page to Stage to Screen: Defining the Cinematic Poem.”
Dahled hinted that if people are planning to attend only one night of slam it’s Friday, August 8. That night is going to be jam packed with events for everyone and an extra unannounced late night event will happen.
“The inside tip is if you are only going to come to one night come to Friday,” says Dahled. “There’s an early show and then a late show and a secret, secret extra late show. You just have to be there to hear about it.”
“There are seriously dozens of events that I’m so excited about,” says Maureen. “I’m just going to have a Red Bull in my purse and run around all week and have a good time.”
Art in Schools
The host city team co-directors are proud to support Elevate Oakland to increase art in Oakland Public Schools.
“They are about leaving Oakland powerfully impacted by the arts and I loved that about them,” says Maureen, who hopes to raise $10,000 – $15,000 to put artists into Oakland schools for the coming school year.
Yoshi Akiba, co-owner of Yoshi’s Jazz Club and co-founder of Elevate Oakland , is proud to support NPS adding that she couldn’t imagine kids losing access to art and music.
“Without access to art and music, kids will lose the ability to express themselves and be open to new things. Music sets us free. At the same time it brings us together,” says Akiba, whose goal is to make sure Oakland’s public schools have access to music and art. “The power of art and music is beyond description! I do not want to imagine a world where our children do not have access to something so important.”
Stay up to date with Oakland’s National Poetry Slam at #NPSOAK.
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