Search This Blog

Friday, May 9, 2014

Failing Forward

I can so relate to this
Julie Owsik Ackerman

I entered a slam poetry contest last week, without really know what a slam poetry contest was. I don’t recommend this. For a while now, I’d been wanting to check out a slam poetry contest, so when I read about one happening at a place called the Mount Airy Art Garage, that started at 7 PM, I thought, perfect, we can bring Daniel, support our local literary scene, and be home by nine. This is my kind of Saturday.

When Carl asked if I was going to read something I said no. “Why not?” he asked. I realized I did have copies of two recent poems I’d written in my purse, so I thought if the spirit moved me, maybe I would.

We were some of the first people to arrive at the venue. The organizers were so happy when we said that we were there for the slam, they actually cheered. Buoyed by this reception, when they asked if any of us had anything to read, I thought, what the hell, and said I would read something. It seemed like such a friendly place.

The fact that there were rules should have tipped me off that this wasn’t an ordinary open mic night, but they didn’t. I took my seat and waited while people filed in. They announced the order of who would read when. I was first, which seemed good. I could get it over with. Except the special guest poet, who was award-winning, with published volumes of poetry was reading before the slam. Huh? I had to follow him? That didn’t seem to bode well. But he was great, so I listened to his reading, and lost myself in it.

Then my turn came. I didn’t feel nervous. I read my short poem, pretty well, I thought, and took my seat. I understood that there were judges, but what I didn’t know until I sat down is that they would each announce their score to the whole audience. That I didn’t like. “Lowest score first,” said the host, scouring the scoreboards. Some confused murmurs spread through the crowd. “Is that…no, that’s an 8, right?” she said.

“No, it’s a 3,” announced the awful witch of a judge.

People actually gasped.

That’s right. I read a poem. In public. In front of my toddler son. And someone rated it a 3. On a scale of 1 to 10. And announced that in front of the crowd.

I don’t know what the other scores were. I think there was a 7, an 8, an 8 ½ . Maybe there was a 5. I honestly can’t say because I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. My face was hot with shame. I wanted to flee the room. To crawl under the table. Who did I think I was? To show up and read a poem? Who did I think I was, to participate in a poetry slam, when I didn’t even know what a poetry slam was? It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had.

The two other poets read their work. Yes, there were only three poets in the competition. And at the end of the first round, the poet with the lowest score was eliminated, and that poet, was me.

So, I should’ve known better. I should’ve been prepared.

But you know what? Actually, I’m proud of what I did. It is totally unlike me to show up somewhere, especially to something that I feel I should be good at, like a poetry competition, unprepared, and say, what the hell, I’m just going to try it. And I did it. And I was a terrible failure. I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t know the format. And one of the judges penalized me for that, and I came in last place.

I hate losing. I hate getting low scores, oh boy do I. But you know what I hate more? Sitting on the sidelines, wishing I had the guts to play, and not having the guts.

On Saturday night, I had the guts. So yes, getting harshly judged hurt. It did. But standing on the stage, sharing my work, that part felt awesome. And I plan on doing it again. Maybe next time I’ll read the rules first. Or maybe not.

So without further ado, my beautiful poem:

First Love Found

It came
rushing back to me—
a word you taught me
in the breakup.

For years I only
remembered the pain,
but today,
driving through golden leaved streets,
the smell of summer’s surrender
transported me
to our beginning,
fall in New York,
a surprise encounter,
your wide smile
matching mine.

Today I remembered
your delight.
I felt it.
I missed it.
I was glad.


  1. Julie, I'm laughing because I had a similar experience recently. Mary and I went to a story slam and I also didn't know the rules. I planned to read an excerpt from PEACE BY PIECE. BUT. . . the rule was to Tell (or perform) a story not read it. I tried to remove myself when I realized I had it wrong, but they encouraged me to go ahead and read. Knowing I was breaking the "rules" made me so nervous, I stammered through the reading., so embarrassed. the good news is, there was no witch judge, so even though I sucked--and I did--they gave me not great but decent marks.
    I'm glad your wounded ego healed and came away proud.

  2. Julie,

    Kudos for showing up and having the courage to read your work publicly. I'm sorry the experience was more slam than constructive. Sounds like the judge was channeling that Simon guy on American Idol.

    What are the rules at a poetry slam, I wonder? What makes one poem a 3 and another an 8? I enjoyed reading First Love ... I related to the story, the imagery and the sentiment.

    Write on!

  3. I'm laughing & agreeing with Chris & Carol - & I'm commiserating!

    It's been a few decades since I first stood to perform my own work for strangers. In fact damifino what it was I dumped on the poor audience - it was that long ago.

    But you got up there & you took the nasty dose of 'losing' (as if poems happen so they can be graded or judged one against t'other; pshaw!) & you slugged the dose down. And then you shared the poem with us and how you felt about about it being slammed & how you chose to learn from it.

    So, time for me to give marks for your first love & your first slamming. On a scale of 1 to 10 I give it... good. Also honest. And finally, it moved me.
    Now, let's organize our own slam in Ardmore. Who's in?

  4. And dammit Julie - you had the guts to put your work out there so you showed me yours, here's one of mine.

    Focus (New York July 1998)
    Look, down there,
    The long tunnel of the past.
    Tight, sharp-eyed youth at the small end
    Of the telescope.
    Wide-waisted, wasted age,
    Here, at the big, round, yawning end.
    It's hard to look back.
    So many memories have scraped
    Across my eyes, have roared in my ears.
    My senses now
    Are scratched and scored.
    Scarred, scared, my soul is badly packed (or pocked) with reminiscence.
    But this is clear.
    That younger me, striving for perfection -
    Of art, of moral, of principle, and all that jazz and jive -
    Knew what he wanted
    Saw it clear-eyed. Centered, at the crux,
    He was in the moment, focused. Which is what I can't be now.
    The present is bleary, my focus is all past.