GRAND CENTER – It’s St. Louis’ turn to host the Rustbelt Poetry Slam Tournament. On Friday and Saturday, the slam takes place at the .ZACK, the Kranzberg Arts Foundation’s facility at 3224 Locust Street.
This is the first time the tournament, now in its 20th year, will be held in St. Louis.
More than a hundred poets are registered to participate in the slam this year, and although the tournament does place a particular emphasis on the Midwest, competitors travel from all across the United States. Just four of the participating teams are St. Louis-based.
The Rustbelt Tournament was originally started by Ohio-based poet David Abbott, who hoped to create a dedicated space for slam poetry in the Midwest. The first tournament featured only eight teams, compared with the 26 teams and 14 individuals who will be competing this year.
For those who might be unfamiliar with the term, slam poetry originated in the 1980s in Chicago, all thanks to a construction worker named Marc Kelly Smith, who hoped to put poetry back into the hands of the people. He organized “poetry slams,” competitions at which poets would perform their work in front of, and then be judged by, an audience. The last poet standing after several rounds was declared the winner.
Poetry slams are known for their high-energy performances. Often, slam poetry revolves around themes of injustice, discrimination and politics, although that’s not a requirement.
MK Stallings, founder of the nonprofit UrbArts, which is hosting the Rustbelt this year, said that poetry slams such as this one were important in highlighting the work of poets who might not otherwise be recognized.
He said that one of the focuses of UrbArts was poetry, especially poetry that “tends to be in the margins of our discussions about the literary arts.”
“It’s important that artists who might exist on the margins be uplifted in our conversations,” he added. “They are, I think, a truer representation of the history of spoken word poetry or the oral tradition in the west. And beyond the west.”
Stallings also said that he thought slam poets spoke directly to the experiences of different groups of people throughout the United States.
“These poets speak urgent, relevant works as opposed to poems for art’s sake or poetry’s sake,” he said. “This is poetry for humanity’s sake. This is poetry for the people.”
The first round of this year’s tournament starts Friday at 7:00 p.m., with two more rounds Saturday at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. and individual and team finals at 4 and 7:00 p.m., respectively. Most of the event is free, except for the team final. Tickets for that cost $20.
For more information, visit https://www.urbarts.org/rustbelt.