Chicago leads a national-level push towards mental well-being within poetry slam circuits

The 2018 National Poetry Slam, in Chicago this week, is addressing longtime wellness problems plaguing the slam world

by Vangmayi Parakala
Medill Reports 

CHICAGO – On Monday afternoon, the conference room at the Palmer House Hilton was abuzz. Under the ornate ceiling décor were busy-but-excited-seeming groups of volunteers streaming in for their official check-in. The National Poetry Slam 2018 is to begin in four hours.

Many of these people — they were loud, happy and welcoming each other with hugs — were meeting for the first time. Already, the group was making the Palmer House Hilton their home. The hotel in Chicago’s Loop district is playing host to the five-day poetry festival-and-competition which will end with the National Poetry Slam finals on Saturday August 18.

Over heaped plates of falafel and hummus, rice and pita, the group coordinators were getting to know their volunteers, distributing name tags, and briefing them about the duties that lay ahead. Sitting to one far corner of the conference room were the Wellness Team volunteers – three of the total 40 expected to join the team through the week. This is the first time that mental and physical health is being given dedicated attention of this scale at a national poetry event.

Since its early days in the late ’80s and early ’90s, slam poetry has been criticized for encouraging a certain type of poetry. The format rewards verse that is easily consumable and drawn from heart-wrenching personal stories of grief and trauma. Picked at random from the audience, judges tend to score highly poems that are powerful, moving and emotionally compelling. This, coupled with slam poetry’s being a genre heavy with stories of everyday and marginalized voices, can mean that violence, abuse, or oppression of some kind are dominant themes.

Add to that the very stress of competitive events, and the need for on-site mental and physical healthcare becomes obvious.

“When I was appointed director, the first call I made was to put this in place,” says Mojdeh Stoakley, the host-city director for the slam. “I mean, we are putting up a performance poetry event, but I still called the sound coordinator only after I called Ona,” she says, referring to Ona Wang, creator of Chicago-based organization Surviving the Mic, that creates spaces for survivors of trauma to express themselves. Wang, a poet-educator, who is the mental health and wellbeing coordinator at the slam, designed what Stoakley refers to as an ambitious “10-year plan” for establishing fully functioning wellness-support systems at national-level poetry slams.

“Most poets and poems in a slam come from different cross-sections of disadvantage,” says Anjana Kirti, the slam’s festival accountant and wellness team coordinator. Volunteers had gathered around her for their orientation session. “Some of them are also new to this scale of event,” she adds, referring to how many competing poets, having competed in smaller, more localized slams only, may be overwhelmed.

At this year’s National Poetry Slam, there are close to 600 participating poets, some performing on their own and some as part of teams. “A lot of them know each other from before, and some history of conflict can exist between them. There is also power dynamics and conflict between slam masters and slam teams,” Kirti says, adding that perhaps members of the audience and judges, too, might need to speak with someone after listening to too many accounts of trauma.

She’d just finished handing out name tags to one set of volunteers, who will serve on Wellness Team’s “restorative justice” group. This form of justice, different from the modern notion of punishing a criminal or perpetrator, focuses on rehabilitation and reconciliation.

“In any big organizational system, from Hollywood to slam poetry, there is bound to be abuse and conflict, but we don’t want to assume that it is intended,” says Stoakley. “I spoke to many organizers and city-directors past and future, and we realized that we are at a time when we are ready to acknowledge the need to address it. This is kind of like slam poetry’s #metoo moment,” she adds.

The two other major services that the Wellness Team is offering at NPS 2018 are childcare services and HIV and disease-testing.

“I read somewhere recently that the revolution can’t happen without childcare,” says Kirti. Moments ago, she repeated this to one of the volunteers who’d specifically signed up to help with childcare services.

“A lot of people, when they become mothers, stop going on tour. We cannot lose so many voices because of the pressures of touring and bringing up their child,” Kirti adds. Childcare at NPS 2018 won’t be a full-time service, but it will be available during the competitive segments — an hour before and after too, to take into consideration performers’ sound-check schedules.

Kirti says the wellness team will have everything from “vitamin c to condoms” at their desk. At various points in the week, HIV- and disease-testing vans will also make their rounds to the many local businesses around Chicago where the NPS events will be hosted. There will also be “sober check-ins,” for poets dealing with addiction and alcohol issues. Some of these will coincide with happy-hours and after-parties.

In part, the push that the city organizers at the NPS are giving to the wellness initiative is directly influenced by the events of College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational 2017, says Stoakley. This was the last slam of national scale to be held in Chicago before the NPS this year. Founder of the slam format, Marc Smith — invited to the competition as the featured guest that year – riled up many poets of color, by performing verses that were deemed as objectionable. “I don’t see him as a racist individual per se,” says Stoakley, who has worked with Smith before. “But did he participate in racism on that day? Yes, perhaps,” she adds.

Accessibility in all forms is a big part of the wellness vision at this year’s NPS, Stoakley adds. Not only did they revisit venues during reconnaissance to make sure they were disabled-friendly, the team also redrew some contracts to ensure that venues are scent-free to make them accessible to people with respiratory problems. This means that the participating venue agree to using no chemical cleaners or scents in their space.

“We can listen, we can adapt,” Stoakley says, adjusting her milky-way printed bomber jacket and she gets up to leave for the welcome party. “We can dream of a utopia and strive towards it.”

Photo at top: The National Poetry Slam is being held in Chicago this year. (Courtesy: nationalpoetryslam.com)