(poetry) SLAM SHOWDOWN: Wednesday Night at the Nuyorican

Hunter Frederick

June 21, 2023

I think we could all agree there’s always something fun to get into on any given night in New York City. It’s a widely held belief, but there’s nothing like having your own proof of phenomenon like these. This past Wednesday, said proof was in action, at the Wednesday Night Poetry Open Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I know what you might be thinking; on a Wednesday? Hump day? Mid-week? Yes, y’all. You might have work tomorrow, but you‘re better off going out and doing something rather than blaming doom-scrolling when coworkers ask why you’re yawning so much. 

I hadn’t much experience with poetry slams. At least not since college, when the hope was to have enough readers to fill the time slots, rather than featuring incredible poets. Nevertheless, Matt and I set out. The awning of the Nuyorican came into view; so did the line that stretched down the block. I wondered what it would be like. How many people would read? What kinds of work would be featured? Was there a cover charge? To answer, in order; a reasonable amount of people, all kinds of spoken word and poetry, and yes, it’s $15. Don’t be stingy now! In typical fashion, I had missed that detail, and had to pay at the door. It caught me by surprise, but pretty immediately I considered it money well spent. 

Our host, JRose (@my_crumbled_thoughts), was kind enough to lay down the law when the event started. The Open Slam is exactly that - an open poetry slam. Anyone can sign up to perform but there’s rules to this. You have 3 minutes to read, and it’s gotta be something original. Then, three audience judges give you a score down to the tenths place, accompanied by boos and cheers from the audience for each one, depending on what they think of the score. Don’t expect to be one and done though; if you’re one of the top 5 scorers from round one, you get into round 2. You have to read something fresh again, no repeats, and winning this round gets you $20 and a spot in the Friday Slam, where I’m told the big cats show up.

With the hosting and housekeeping aside, the performances began; it’d be disingenuous and underselling to call them readings. All skill levels and all manners of poets performed; some from memory, others from paper or their phones. But all with a brave passion; I don’t know if I could go up there and read under the lights. I still don’t know. A variety of topics were touched; family, love, anger, self-reliance, healing, tragedy, history, and more.

As I write this, I realize it’s somewhat tough for me to put it into words. How do I show the feeling of anticipation, the seconds before a poet begins? The way they take that one inhale with more purpose than before, center themselves, and raise their eyes to meet yours. How do I describe the way the air gets sucked out of the room when something is yelled for emphasis? How do I tell you about the way the crowd’s reaction shows you exactly what line hit who, and how deeply? Some of the poets were artists or writers by craft. Others did this after their day jobs, but every performer had heart. Nobody did it just to do it; they all had something to say, and they were going to take their 3 minutes to say it ( sometimes more). 

These are things better felt than written, and I highly, highly recommend you go see it for yourself; the poets and the Nuyorican deserve your patronage. But, I can tell you, when a poet stumbled, or messed up their fast verses, the audience was there to lift them up. I can tell you how the host walked us through a little breathe-and-release after the first heavy poem of the night. I can tell you that I felt that safe and homey feeling; the kind you might get if you had to make a speech, and looked in the crowd and saw it was full of people who love you. I can tell you that Slam was something unique. Although weekly, that night, with those poets, won’t happen again. The winner Nhataniel (@nhatkp) was from Atlanta; others were from Wisconsin, San Diego, Montréal, and more. I can’t imagine the well of writing running dry at the Nuyorican; it’s been flowing for 50 years and I hope it flows for many more. Stop in for a drink, and take in some art. It’s a great way to spend a Wednesday.