“The Grand Slam featuring Neil Hilborn” was a strange and compelling beast. The poetry slam event, which was held at Memorial Chapel on Saturday night, included both heartbreaking poetry and hearty laughs from Neil Hilborn, the show’s host and College National Slam Poetry champion.
The night’s stakes were pretty high, as each poet was not merely competing to be the best of the night. The slam’s ten contestants were also fighting each other for Wesleyan’s five spots at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, a competition between students at various colleges. Each poet was given three minutes and 10 seconds to perform, and was not allowed the use of any props or music, relying on voice alone for powerful self-expression. There were two rounds: Each poet made it to the first, and the seven best made it to the second. The judges were five audience volunteers, required to give each poem a score ranging from 0.0 to 10.0. To determine the winners of each round, the highest and lowest scores were dropped for each poem.
In between each performance, audiences were treated to the delightfulness of Hilborn. The bearded, short-haired and energetic performer brought levity to what was a predominantly emotional evening. He frequently and casually dropped f-bombs with the glee of a kid in a candy shop.
When speaking about his travels across the country to poetry slams, he proudly announced, “I hate New Jersey…(to anyone from there) your state’s a fucking armpit!”
The first truly excellent poem of the night came from the mouth of Hazem Fahmy ’17, who performed a scathing criticism of media reactions to the recent terrorist attacks across the country, Facebook’s new French flag profile pictures, and the condemning of Muslims over extremists.
“For lives lost not glamorous enough for your Facebook screens,” he began, sending chills and murmurs of agreement through the audience. “Did the TSA officer not [give] a disclaimer on your skin?” It’s a prime example of the far-reaching emotional trauma that can be best portrayed through poetry. The poem received a perfect score of 10.0.
Then came the immense pain and heartbreak of a poem by Giorgia Peckman ’18, an honest look at depression and suicide that jumped back and forth between her experience in a hospital mental ward and the horrors of her own thoughts. “The nurse saw my arms and said, ‘Oh god, sweetie, you did all that?’ I said, ‘You haven’t seen my legs yet.’”
Lexi Slater ’19 quickly proved herself a fiery, unstoppable force of nature. “Queer suicide is never suicide…it’s murder!” she shouted with overwhelming power, her performance replete with twinges of pain in her otherwise unshakable voice. “His name was Skylar Marcus Lee—he died on the ground you pushed him in,” she proclaimed. Her poem, much like the winning poem of the night, was deeply personal and directly focused.
Destiny Polk ’19 performed a tragic, intensely painful poem about the hypocritical expectations of trauma survivors.
“Through the pain I kinda liked it,” she said with perfect rhythm. “I mean, that’s what I’m supposed to?”
It was one of many heartbreaking performances, but the passiveness, subtle anger, and perfect rhythm of her performance made it all too crushing.
Joy Feinberg ’19 gave a scathing feminist criticism of Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” harshly attacking the ways in which it suggests that women aren’t seen as independent in the eyes of men. Francesca Peña ’18 performed a poem about relationships and scientific facts about the body as a metaphor for love. And then there was a poem from Jennifer Gagné ’19, who says “fuck you” to people writing articles about “coddled college campuses.” At the end she screamed “fuck you” at the judge who gave her a 7.0.
The second round of poems (performed by Polk, Feinberg, Slater, Peckman, Fahmy and Levi) was distinctly weaker than the first round. Many of them were much broader and less specific in word choice and subject than the first round. The evening was still an emotional and important one. Ultimately, Slater took first place, with Feinberg, Polk, Fahmy, and Peckman joining her for the College National Poetry Slam.