Stepping into Townshend’s Teahouse on Friday evening, Oct. 30 was akin to stepping into another world. Bozeman — beautiful but familiar — remained at the door, and everything beyond was haunted by the spirit of elsewhere. There were more bodies than chairs, and people were left clinging to the walls as they waited for the beginning of a truly unique event: the Dead Poets Slam. As the poets took to the stage, emotions were laid bare, old wounds were reopened and words were spilled in the place of blood in Bozeman’s first-ever slam poetry competition.
The competition opened with a “sacrifice,” during which a friend of the event warmed up the evening with a recitation. From there, the slam truly kicked off. A collection of brave poets bared their souls to the assembled crowd, reciting original works of spoken art. The poems ranged from gut-wrenching tragedies to humorous anecdotes to celestial abstractions. Volunteers from the audience became the judges of the competition — armed with whiteboards and Expo markers, the newly-appointed judges decided the fate of the contestants with nothing more than a single number between one and ten. As the poets exited the stage, the ever-encouraging crowd acknowledged the contestants’ bravery with a chorus of applause, echoing master of ceremonies Kelly Mullins’ oft-repeated phrase, “Let’s hear it for the poet, and not the scores.”
Five contestants moved on to the second round, and only two made the cut for the final round. It was a tough call for the judges, as both of the final contestants were formidable wordsmiths. The win ultimately went to Jack Dawkins, a massage therapy student who recently wandered into the Bozeman area.
“I began writing spoken word poetry about two years ago,” Dawkins said, “and since then, I’ve traveled quite a bit with spoken word. Personally, I’m not formally trained to do any of these things. I pretty much just look at the microphone as my therapist.”
While the first half of the evening mirrored a traditional poetry slam, the second half was dominated by the Dead Poets Slam. This competition saw contestants reciting poems by writers long dead and gone, but with a twist: rather than simply reading the poems in a traditional style, they did so in “slam style.” Often associated with dimly-lit rooms and snapping in the place of applause, slam style is characterized by high emotion and is very powerful when witnessed in person. School of Film and Photography professor Stephanie Campbell, along with two professors from the English department — Zachary Bean and Ben Leubner — judged the Dead Poets Slam.
After listening to nearly a dozen poems, some of which were quite familiar — such as Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night” — Dawkins was ultimately crowned champion of the second competition as well, for his reading of the nonsensical “Two Dead Boys.”
As the emcee pointed out continuously throughout the night, this was Bozeman’s first-ever slam poetry competition, but organizer David Shields says it won’t be the last. “We’ve been wanting to do a slam in Bozeman since we started the open mic two years ago,” Shields said. “And the Dead Poets Slam [came about] because I wanted to revive things that we don’t get to hear when we go to a standard poetry slam. There will definitely be more. It was a good turnout, everybody had fun, and we’ve learned lots of things.”
The Bozeman Poetry Collective meets for an open mic on the second Monday of every month at Townshend Teas, and also on the last Friday or Saturday of every month at the Bozeman Public Library. More information about their upcoming open mic nights and poetry slams can be found on their Facebook page at facebook.com/bozemanpoetrycollective.