Strictly process, strictly progress.
People have asked about how bad the 2015 Rust Belt Poetry Slam was. While I’ve been away from it for a few years, I feel confident in stating that it was the worst version of it that’s existed to date. I’ve hosted it 3 times, and three other Columbus poets have hosted it once each for a total of 6 appearances of this event in Columbus, Ohio in the 15 years it’s existed. It’s been in my city more than any other city, so when I say it’s the worst I’ve seen, you can take my word for it.
Now, we can do the gossip version of this, which is just me rattling off a bunch of things that happened (which is already well documented on various pages) and that most people will act like they’re above reading, or I can rattle off all of the philosophical problems that lead to the actions that generated gossip-worthy things (which very few people are interested in talking about) and that most people will act like they don’t have time to read. Either way, it’s important to note that RB2015 a) wasn’t the worst poetry slam I’ve seen, b) is far less salacious than other events you’ve seen, and c) exposes the community in attendance for better or worse almost as much as it does the organizer. So how about I just deconstruct those three things with examples from this busted-ass tournament, yes? That way all camps are appeased (or equally offended) and I’m not bored out of my mind trying to recall an event that, really, has no business in my brain space at this point.
There are a lot of things that went wrong at Rust Belt 2015, but some of them are actually pretty typical of not only other Rust Belts, but other national events. I’ve been in my fair share of National Poetry Slam bouts that struggled with finding audience, and conversely judges, and the same goes for other events. We all have. Not having judges comes from not having audience, and that’s par for the course across the board. That Rockford didn’t have any audience, on the surface, seems kind of not worth people’s time to point out. I was at the 2004 National Poetry Slam in St. Louis (which is by and large the bar for how to not run a poetry event on a molecular level). Rockford was bad, but it wasn’t 2004 NPS bad. That people want it to be that bad for conversation’s sake suggests they don’t know what happened in 2004. So maybe RB 2015 is their NPS 2004 (“Is this Obama’s Katrina?”), minus the fact that it isn’t a NPS. Which is to say, people need context like a motherfucker, but that’s a different discussion.
At the same time, Rockford had the problem worse than anyone’s ever had the problem of any event I’ve ever seen. They booked 20 teams in 5 venues*, all at the same time (so no support, no camaraderie, no networking, no regionalism…just competitive focus bullshit), which meant they needed to generate enough audience in 5 venues to be interesting and net 5 judges per bout. What happened in Rockford? The average judge count in Rockford’s venue was 3, and most of them were volunteers and staff. That means that on Friday night the entire event didn’t get 25 people in the doors COLLECTIVELY, let alone in one venue. They didn’t get 5 people in the venue my team was in. Mind you, these bouts were free. Two blocks away from my venue was some kind of street fair that had hundreds of people milling about. but within two blocks of my venue? No one. There weren’t even any homeless people to drag in off the street (which has happened at more than one NPS I’ve been to). This was the case at all of the venues, save the one or two that scrounged up 4 judges, only to nonsensically drop the high scores.
Also, the emcees were largely 100% slam ignorant; hadn’t seen a slam, didn’t know how to run a slam, and were supported, kind of, by bout managers in name only. Teams were given 30-page rule booklets which were basically NPS booklets with different covers, there was no training or orientation, and there were no side events. It was less like a regional poetry event than it was a gladiator pit, but with Nerf weapons. Bouts were by and large a travesty, and not just in the competitive sense: some bouts were interrupted by remarks by emcees that ranged from WTF to racist/sexist. My bout took an hour to get 4 poets on stage and then took a break so the emcee could deliver a 10-minute monologue about his life…and that was PLANNED. Most of the bouts pressed on despite their problems, trying to make some kind of concession with chaos to at least finish something resembling a slam.
My bout took a different tact. At my bout, after the intermission, teams began to agitate and mutiny. The bout was basically stopped cold and arguments erupted around the stage about rotations, then various concerns about the emceeing and interruptions, and on and on. I told my team this event was going to be suspect weeks ago when I saw the schedule had 4-hour bouts on them (so that emcees – who would all be comedians according to the organizer – could interact with the crowds), and encouraged them to have fun regardless. So they played skeeball and darts while the other teams raged against the non-machine. The host eventually made her way to our bout, only to be yelled at as well, and finally I proposed to everyone that we stop trying to make this shit bout work and just reschedule it for the next day…a trick I learned from NPS 2004. If we could get the bouts to not be 4-hours long, we could “pull it off”. I put that in quotes because as far as I was concerned at the point that you have no organization, no audience and unskilled staff, the event belongs to the poets and we should do whatever we want.
Even if you came there strictly for a competition, there was no way you could stand behind anything that came out of a bout under those conditions. You’d look ridiculous walking around talking about you took a 1 rank or got a 30 in a bout in which the emcee sat in a wheelchair directly behind every performer because the venue wasn’t wheelchair accessible and it didn’t occur to anyone to give him a bout that didn’t have an elevated stage. Or an emcee doubling as a judge, tapping judges one by one for scores verbally because there weren’t any dry erase boards like it was the World Series of Poker (“I’ll match that score”). And so on. So while it sounds crazy that teams would stop their bout in the middle because it was so poorly run, it really wasn’t that deep. It’s not like the bartender said “Screw this” and turned on the music in the middle of someone’s poem, refusing to let the bout finish so that they could get people who actually tip with their drinks in the door (which is EXACTLY what happened to my bout in NPS 2004). It was just teams deciding they’d had enough and didn’t trust the organizer to fix the problems. So we erred on the side of Sleep On It instead of trying to finish a dramatic bout slowly becoming a horror show. I don’t care about the competitive aspects of Slam, but that doesn’t mean I expect everyone else to enjoy the ride. Better to cut our losses, and every other bout should have done the same thing. You should be hearing about how all of the bouts mutinied, not just ours.
And here, I’d like to go on record stating that the Kryptonite Bar has great bar-level pizza.
Other teams had similar horror stories, and Team Black Messiah opted not to finish the tournament the next day after a series of observations they deemed racially offensive by the emcee and judging. Post event, the organizer thought it in her self-interest to gather her community around her in public displays of (misinformed) support which resulted in some grievous and public name-calling by people that had just been working bouts, proving that the exact kind of sentiments the team felt threatened by the day before weren’t at all out of line. This, compounded by the fact that during the Facebook pity-session-turned-mob they got the wrong guy, and then tried to clean it up by admitting they’d confused one of the sweetest and most genuine people in Slam – Hanif Willis-Abudrraqib – with another “black guy.”
The bottom line is that the event had no business in Rockford. The teams that showed up at the previous year’s meeting to vote on their bid probably felt they didn’t have any choice, since half of the teams in attendance didn’t even show up to hear bids, launch bids, or vote. Like, didn’t send one person out of their whole crew. So you kind of get what you pay for there.
Rust Belt is not an expensive tournament to put on or attend compared to other events, not even close. My team drove 7.5 hours to get there and the whole tab was still probably only about $450. You can’t even register a team for NPS for $450, let alone stay in a hotel, transport yourself or play ball. That said, it certainly doesn’t mean teams shouldn’t expect a certain level of professionalism from the event. It means organizers need to be smart, mindful, and otherwise have some organizing chops. Rockford had none of these things in place, and that was apparent months before people started showing up. I have to believe that ignorance was apparent in their bid as well and no one either noticed or cared. Rust Belt is the kind of event you can do if you’re looking to expand your experience as an organizer, but it isn’t the kind of event you can do if you can’t even make your local shit pop. If you run a local show that has 20 people showing up every week, that doesn’t qualify you to run a Rust Belt. If that rock hit you, do us all a favor and don’t bid for a Rust Belt.
Of course, in 2016 it will be in Columbus – THANKS HANIF – so we’ll be doing our level best as a scene to ensure that no one has an opportunity to use the hashtag #RustBeltShade next year.
* – Rust Belt typically maxes out around 16 teams, and if you averaged them out since 2000 I’d say the average is around 10 teams.