WU-Slam’s Grand Slam — an untraditional yet unforgettable experience
As I entered Bowles Plaza on Thursday night, the sky was already grey. Instead of a formal indoor stage, WU-Slam’s Grand Slam, the first of the semester, took place outdoors. The setup was simple — three lines of chairs were placed across from a microphone. Below the microphone stand was a string of yellow, star-shaped lights — one of the only sources of light in the plaza besides the faint glow from inside Mallinckrodt Center. A pianist and trumpeter played live music as the seats filled with audience members. The haunting, wistful melodies of the instruments and the soft hum of chatting audience members created an almost spooky aura — a fitting atmosphere for the start of October.
By the time the host of the night approached the microphone, the sky had darkened so that only part of their face was visible, lit by the soft glow of the starry lights below. The host introduced the judges — four audience members who did not personally know any performers, instructed to assign each poem a score between one and 10. The judges are like the WashU rabbit statue, the host explained: always thinking, unmoving and unswayed by the audience.
The host instructed the rest of the audience to repeat after them: “We are like actual bunnies,” we echoed. “We run this place.”
“Stone bunny or real bunny, all bunnies will enjoy the show,” the host concluded. Unlike a traditional indoor stage, where the lights may dim to cue the start of the performance, the lights remained the same, and the first poet approaching the microphone signaled the start of the night’s events instead.
As I quickly learned, slam poetry is more than just reading one’s writing — it is a performance. It is the inflection in the poet’s words, the volume of their voice and the pacing of their breaths. Each poet brought the audience on a journey with them through their words, voice and body language. When the poet spoke quickly, I felt that anxiety and emotion along with them. When the poet paused for a breath, I found myself taking a breath with them. My eyes were glued to the performer from beginning to end.
The voice of each poet was not the only noise filling the plaza. The audience contributed snaps, light stomps and the occasional “Yes, poet!” As the poet got louder, so did the audience; as the poet quieted their voice, the audience fell into an awed silence.
As the sky darkened, more lanterns were added, but the poet remained only half-illuminated. Despite the darkness, I could still see the poet’s expression and feel the emotion of their words.
After each performer delivered one poem, the host announced a 10-minute break to decompress. During the break, I ate a complimentary brownie and listened to the light laughter of the audience members.
Round two proceeded in the same way as the first. Just as before, I was enthralled by each poem, unaware of the passage of time. The final performer concluded their poem. Unlike a usual performance where the lights go up at the end, the darkness remained — the only signal of the end of the show was the final words of WU-Slam’s president: “I’ll see you later!” I enjoyed the continuation of the darkness. Instead of being brought back fully to reality by a harsh light, I was able to slowly transition away from the performance atmosphere, giving me time to digest and reflect upon the powerful words of each poet.
WU-Slam’s return to in-person performances did not disappoint. The sounds and lights set the scene for an unforgettable experience and a perfect introduction to autumn, and the lack of a traditional indoor setting only added to the performance. I can’t wait to see what immersive experience WU-Slam creates next.