Rooting for the hometown (poetry) team

 L to R: Slammaster Jen Harris, Ezhno Martin (back), Dylan Kingsley (front), Keith Bohannon, Jeanette Powers

This weekend, the competition will be fierce for the Kansas City hometown team at the Dead Toto festival.  That’s when the PoUnd Slam team of local poets will take on competitors from St. Louis, Omaha, and Fayetteville hoping to advance to the National Poetry Slam.

Yes, poetry has become a competitive art form. Since 1984, groups across the country have been holding poetry slam competitions.

“It’s the sport of poetry,” says Jen Harris.

Harris is slammaster for Kansas City’s PoUnd Slam team, which got started one year ago today. The team members, following national guidelines, present their work in front of a live audience and judges rate their performance. Until now, Kansas City has not fielded a team.

(The team, seen in the photo above, includes L to R: Slammaster Jen Harris, Ezhno Martin (back), Dylan Kingsley (front), Keith Bohannon, and Jeanette Powers.)

But Harris says the poetry scene has been developing in Kansas City, and especially Midtown, for a while. A group called Poetic Underground has been holding weekly open mic sessions at the Uptown Arts Bar for three years. Producer of Poetic Underground, Jeanette Powers, says local poets pull from a wide range of topics.

“Poetry is the first history of now,” she says. At the open mics, an topic is acceptable, from LGBT to rape culture to racial issues. The sessions can be emotional and intense, and she says the audience comes in “ready to be vulnerable.”

But the sessions are also meant to be entertaining.

“There are also a ton of funny poems. We focus on things that are unfair, but at the same time we have laughing poems and funny poems,” she says.

Poetry, especially spoken aloud to an audience, is increasingly popular because it fills a need, Harris says.

“It could change lives and save lives. That’s what it did for me.” Harris cites her own life experience coming out in an alienating environment. “People said there was something wrong with me. The poetry community said you are spectacular. Don’t change. I feel like I found a home here.”

“You can spend hours working with someone and never know them. After only 10 minutes on stage, you have gone through something vulnerable together and you know them,” Powers adds.

They say for many years, Missouri was a flyover state for poets, too. While a growing number of people are making a living through writing and giving readings, Kansas City didn’t have enough of an audience to attract them. Now that’s changing, say Harris and Powers, in part because of regular events at the Uptown Arts Bar and other venues. The National Folk Alliance conference last month featured a poetry slam as part of its programming.

At Friday’s regional competition, the Kansas City PoUnd Slam team faces off against Urb Arts of St. Louis,, OM Center of Omaha, and Word Warriors of Fayetteville. And Powers and Harris both say that the audience can have a huge impact on their performance, so they’re hoping local fans will turn out to root for the home team.


Dead Toto festival, regional poetry slam

  • Friday, March 6 doors open 6:30 bout 8 p.m.
  • Buffalo room at 817 Westport Road, $5
  • Presented by Prospero’s Books
  • Regional competition of poetry slam teams, plus featured KC poets and open mic afterwards

Websites and videos to learn more



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