GRAND CENTER – On Friday and Saturday, more than a hundred poets traveled from across the country to participate in the Rustbelt Poetry Slam Tournament at the .ZACK, the Kranzberg Arts Foundation’s facility at 3224 Locust Street.
In its 20th year, this is the first time the tournament was hosted in St. Louis. Though the tournament does place a particular emphasis on the Midwest, just four of the participating teams were St. Louis-based. The rest came from various states across the country.
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 competed this year.
Slam poetry originated in the 1980s in Chicago, 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 in 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, though 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 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 started on 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.
Because of rain, the 11:00 a.m. round got off to a slow start, but overall the event was popular with poets and the public.
The winner of the final team round on Saturday was Slammageddon Baltimore, who traveled in from Maryland for the event.
For more information about UrbArts and the Rustbelt Poetry Slam, visit https://www.urbarts.org/tag/rustbelt-2019/.