Slam poets bring W.A.R. to Burger Stand

Ryan Thompson

Washburn After Reading, or W.A.R., brought slam poetry to College Hill on April 7.

Matt Spezia, sophomore business major, created and hosted the first W.A.R. slam at the College Hill Burger Stand. Spezia hopes that this event will establish an active slam scene in Topeka.

“There’s Speakeasy Poets who host a poetry open-mic and you’ll see random open mics here on campus from time to time, but there’s not really a slam scene here,” Spezia said. “There are really strong slam scenes in Kansas City, Lawrence, Salina and even Wichita. We’re in the capital city. Why do we not have one?“

Slam poetry is a competitive style of poetry where poets have three minutes to perform for five judges who are selected from the crowd before the event.  The judges score the performances from zero to 10 and the highest and lowest scores are dropped. Slam poets draw inspiration from a wide variety of influences, but they commonly take elements from hip-hop and beat poetry.

While the event was informal, it can hardly be described as casual. All competitors delivered their performances with jaw-dropping intensity to a riled crowd. Spezia encouraged audience members to shout and cheer during the event, as audience participation is an important part of the slam scene.

“There’s an energy about it that’s unique to slam poetry,” Spezia said. “Slam poets are the gladiators of poetry. You have to dig deep to not only find something that you are convinced in writing, but you have to convince other people with how you say it.”

W.A.R. featured six poets in the competition: Sue Edgerton of Speakeasy Poets, Tara Bartley, David Baumgardner and Tava Miller, as well as Nick Givechi and Toaster of Nique Poetry, a group of artists based out of Kansas City, with which Spezia is also affiliated. All poets performed twice with Givechi, Baumgardner and Bartley performing in a third round.

With a hard fought victory, Baumgardner earned the right to call himself W.A.R.’s first slam champion. The competition was also a first for Baumgardner, as he had not won a slam prior to this event. Baumgardner currently resides in Kansas City, but is originally from a struggling area in Washington D.C. and he turned to writing as an outlet for his frustrations.

“Gospel rap grabbed me with revelation to express my past in all efforts to show people that you can overcome any obstacle in life,” Bumgardner said. “When I found out that I could write through rap, I bumped into poetry.”

Baumgardner believes slams are important to poetry because they push writers to improve their craft. Because of this, he has made it his personal goal to attend three slams each month, two in Kansas City and one out of town. This mission brought him to Topeka and he was impressed with the capital city’s potential.

“I saw that Topeka, Kansas, was holding their first slam ever, so it was only right for me to see what type of talent Topeka has,” Baumgardner said. “When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was how responsive the crowd was. I also enjoyed seeing the respect each poet gave to one another after each reading. Considering this is a competition, it’s great to see poets encourage each other.”

Baumgardner also co-founded Pioneer Poets with Miller. The organization is made up of artists, activists and ministers looking to affect the community through volunteer work.

Spezia intends to make Washburn After Reading a regular event and hopes his fellow students will take interest in the slam.

“If we have successful turnouts, I can keep bringing this back and it will continue to be a monthly thing,” Spezia said. “We would have a very strong slam scene literally up the block from some amazing writers I’ve met here at Washburn.”

Furthermore, Spezia extended his gratitude to anyone who attended W.A.R. or plans to attend future slams.

“I want to say thank you to everybody who comes out, because if [they did] not then we’d just be yelling in a room,” Spezia said. “We’d still be yelling, but it’s nice when people listen.”