There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air at the this week with the arrival of inkSlam 2011, a four-day celebration of poetry and spoken word.
The opening night show Thursday featured a huge range of performers. Femme Fatales of Poetry, a showcase featuring several prominent female poets, kicked off the evening, followed by the Indie Slam, a thrilling show that featured 18 burgeoning poets all throwing down their best verses for the chance at a cash prize (not to mention some rather hefty bragging rights).
The performances lasted until after 1 in the morning, but the packed crowd stayed until the end, proving that there remains a vital, hungry audience for spoken word.
When you are dealing with slam poetry, the power of any given performer comes in equal measure from his or her content and delivery. While some of the poets competing in the Indie Slam are still operating at an amateur level, there was a raw emotionalism and vulnerability to their work that was always exciting to watch.
That's the thing about poetry. It's so intensely personal that even when the craft itself leaves something to be desired, the mere act of watching someone so exposed remains extremely compelling.
The poets competed in three rounds, with cuts made at the end of each set. They were judged by a panel of five audience members (not an enviable job). The audience judges generally had good taste, and the final round featured four of the strongest performers of the night.
The eventual winner was a young female poet who went by the name of Queen D. While she wasn't my personal favorite, it was still a great choice. All three of her poems told very raw, personal stories with a nice mixture of insight and accessability.
Other strong contenders included Blue, an older poet whose calm, controlled delivery allowed his words to take center stage. This was a smart decision as he was the strongest writer of the night, weaving dense, imagistic narratives chock-full of clever internal rhymes.
The other two finalists were G, a young poet whose most memorable piece was a stirring look at his childhood, told with an astonishing amount of compassion and warmth toward his abusive father, and Jalal, whose fearsome, charismatic stage presence electrified the room every time he took the mic.
There were plenty of other great performers who didn't quite make it to the final four. These included Ocean, a female poet with a particularly smooth, melodic flow, and Rudy, whose work combined the political and the personal in such a way that the two became indistinguishable from each other. There were plenty of other highlights, and the final scores for each round were incredibly close.
While Rachel McKibbens, the headliner from the Femme Fatales show and a highly acclaimed poet in her own right, wasn't the ideal host, she did say some nice, seemingly heartfelt things about the bravery of the young competitors and the importance of seeing live poetry.
But McKibbens was, in the end, a very small aspect of the show, and the fun of seeing so many young, passionate performers getting on stage and giving us everything they've got more than made up for the emceeing.
And the audience added a huge amount to the proceedings. Everyone was stomping, snapping and cheering for the verses they liked, and the energy stayed at a fever pitch well into the night. Slam poetry remains one of the last truly participatory art forms. The audience is involved in the show just as much as the performers, and that only adds to the appeal.
inkSlam 2011 continues Saturday night with workshops during the day and shows at night (including the team competition, which will feature many of the strongest performers from the Indie Slam). Spoken word may be an ancient art form, but it's vibrantly alive in Los Angeles.
For more info and tickets, visit the inkSlam website.