Poetry grand slam | Word of mouth (March/April 2017)

Whether you experience it on stage or from the audience, Trinidad and Tobago’s national spoken word poetry slam is full of thrills

Seth Sylvester, 2016 champion of the First Citizens National Poetry Slam. Photograph courtesy The 2 Cents Movement

Ariana Herbert on experiencing T&T’s national spoken word poetry slam — on stage and in the audience

In the latter quarter of my brief existence, I’ve often found myself in strange and surprising situations. But perhaps the best of these remains mistakenly auditioning for the largest spoken word competition in the Caribbean. Quite entirely through orchestrated actions of the universe — or perhaps because my brother got me there by telling me it was just an open mic — in 2014 I found myself in the semi-finals for what was then called the Verses Bocas Poetry Slam, and a year later in the finals.

Now called the First Citizens National Poetry Slam, and nationally established as one of Trinidad and Tobago’s biggest poetry platforms, the competition is the closing event of the annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest, coordinated by the literary festival and its partners the 2 Cents Movement. (This year the slam finals happen on Sunday 30 April, at the National Academy for Performing Arts in Port of Spain.)

Competing for a TT$20,000 grand prize among thirteen other participants in front of internationally renowned judges is not an opportunity that arises easily — nor one that any of us poets treats lightly. It is a respected space that demands we challenge our craft and commit to excellence.

Onstage, there is something truly magical about that hushed darkness before the spotlight bathes you, feeling a performance pour out of your body, and knowing you have but a few minutes to invite an audience of over a thousand people to share part of you. In the Caribbean spoken word arena, this experience is unparalleled.

And for those in the audience? The real beauty is being submerged in a live story and feeling the words sing around you, surging throughout your body. Whether you feel refreshed or stung, an excellent piece insists a change upon you.

Last year’s slam finals saw fourteen artists judged by T&T performance legends Paul Keens-Douglas and Wendell Manwarren, alongside Circle of Poets president Nicholas Sosa, Boston University professor Laurence Breiner, and Barbadian writer Nailah Folami Imoja. The event was graced with guest performances by T&T’s Minister of Tourism, Shamfa Cudjoe, alongside Shineque Saunders, champion of the Courts Bocas Speak Out Intercol 2016 — T&T’s national schools spoken word competition.

With topics that ranged from the sombre to the hilarious, the participants that night commanded the stage. There came quiet singed by blistering lines of social critique, raucous times of delight in brilliantly ridiculous snippets, and an aftermath of respect for the sheer cunning of the poets. Seth Sylvester, the 2016 winner, delved into a personal narrative that clutched the audience and then released them to a standing ovation. There is something undeniably human about connecting to someone else’s experience, and Seth’s performance to this day affects me.

My favourite part is always when someone else goes, I thought it was only me . . .