Wednesday night at Firecreek Coffee Co., a packed room heckled and clapped in support of the style and rhythm of competitive spoken word. Simultaneously tender and brutal, the poets dissected facets of the human condition with humor and narrative exploration.
Otherwise known as slam poetry, this phenomenon has dominated Flagstaff since the millennium’s turn. Across locations and talents, Flagslam’s many iterations have further cemented the resilience of this community and its attachment to poetry.
When it comes to the competition, the tip of the iceberg for solo poets is the non-profit Poetry Slam Inc.’s Individual World Poetry Slam. Come Wednesday, Flagstaff will become the host of the 2016 international competition.
IWPS takes place Oct. 12 through 15. At multiple venues, 96 artists will duke it out before the final dozen compete at Prochnow Auditorium, on NAU’s north campus, Saturday, Oct. 15. Learn more at iWPS.poetryslam.com and purchase tickets at Nau.edu/CTO.
Slams across the country, under the umbrella of Poetry Slam Inc., operate on all-volunteer steam. For seven years, a Flagstaff poet has split time one million ways between competing, organizing and hosting the weekly Flagslam.
John Quinonez’ passion for poetry has even led him to host a “cozy slam” at his house. That element, he said, is what inspired him to toss out a bid for iWPS to head to Flagstaff this year.
“What we could provide as a city, not just as a slam, is that we could thrive through each other’s’ work more than just standing alone,” Quinonez said, noting Flagstaff’s comfortable feel.
More than a tournament, he explained, this huge body of international performers — from Cape Town, South Africa, to Sonora Reyes representing Flagstaff — travel to world-wide stages not just to compete, but to immerse themselves and learn from each other.
The programming at this festival, especially, follows an inclusive thread. Flagstaff’s organizing team noted, when designing the three-day schedule, they went out of their way to emphasize accessibility to the best of their ability.
At each event, one will find a gender-neutral space in regard to restrooms, Quinonez noted, and each venue is within walking distance of the next. What the organizers are most proud of, though, is identity-minded events do not overlap.
He added, “You never have to choose between different factions of yourself. It really is set up to express voices rather than choose between them because that’s the point of this — to experience others’ points of view.”
Events also venture into topics both humorous and stark. Veteran PSi volunteer, poet and current Flagslam Slam Master, Wil Williams, noted the largest programming challenge has been to take all of these things into consideration and craft a seamless schedule.
IWPS inclusivity offers space for women, African-American and Asian/Pacific-Islander artists to share their stories. On Saturday, Diné poet Rowie Shebala and storyteller Sunny Dooley, former Miss Navajo, also will present traditional stories of Navajo culture.
But before the Slam Championship Thursday, the Haiki Deathmatch will offer a goofy twist. Friday, poets at SoSoBa Noodle Shop will be judged on their poems — after devouring the spiciest blend of capsaicin the restaurant has to offer.
Workshops, including a Chapbook Workshop where Wasted Ink Zine Distro will discuss the importance of self-publishing, offer tips for printing, marketing and how to craft a press release — and are all volunteer-run.
For Williams, coordinating in a host city, thriving off the visiting volunteers’ energy, has been a humbling experience. “The work put into being a host city can be exhausting, but getting to be on the inside looking out at such a kind, hardworking, supportive community constantly makes the work feel rewarding.”
But the most important aspect, stressed Quinonez, is the audience. As the “life-long volunteer” readies to step down and away from organizing so many events in Flagstaff, he reflected on a medium he never intended to pursue after obtaining a degree in arts education.
“These events are so unique because they are so many things all at the same time: social justice rally, central tournament that people take very seriously, concert, and a weird therapy session, and it has strange, ‘Animal House’ elements in between,” he said.
With Flagstaff and Sedona slams the only ones still standing, Quinonez will not devote time to the rest of the state — for more people to share their voices.
“It’s a platform and means for empowerment for people who may not get that otherwise in their own communities,” he added. “We have a diverse body who use this as a platform to not only share their work, but be heard — and not in a self-serving way.”