The word “empowering” came up frequently when the founders of the Woosh Kinaadeiyí poetry slams, Christy NaMee Ericksen and Nahaan, spoke about the evolution of the monthly poetry events and the upcoming second annual Grand Slam.
When Eriksen, 27, who grew up in Juneau, returned to her hometown after attending college in Minnesota, she felt an immediate sense that something was missing from her life. While in college, Eriksen had been immersed in the spoken word community, writing and sharing poetry, organizing and attending live events.
“It was empowering to see someone sharing with passion and being well received,” Eriksen said. “It was enlightening that you could use the power of your own voice.” When she moved back to Juneau, she said, “I missed that feeling of being held up by a group of people who shared experiences and visions for the world.”
Nahaan, 29, was born and raised in Seattle. His gateway into performing poetry was hip hop. Break dancing was a passion for him, and he began rapping, and was eventually encouraged to attend a local poetry slam.
“Seeing how confident and direct the people were, expressing their thoughts and ideas and feelings made me consider the way I craft what I say and what I write and the message I want to give,” Nahaan explained. “The slams sparked me to present my words.”
Nahaan moved to Juneau in 2009 to explore his Native Tlingit culture, and met Eriksen at a casual “writers of color” group that she had started.
“Instantly I was like, ‘I love this dude,’” Eriksen said.
“We recited poetry, talked about life, had potlucks,” Nahaan said. He too missed the spoken word scenes he had been involved with in the Seattle area.
The two had formed an electric bond centered around their passion for the spoken word. In the summer of 2010, Eriksen and Nahaan sat down over cups of tea to discuss starting a regular poetry slam in Juneau.
“We were very intentional that the point was about community, not about just poetry,” Eriksen said. “We didn’t want a place where people read their poetry, we wanted to outreach to communities that we thought were disenfranchised from literary circles.”
For Nahaan there was also a cultural mission.
“Oratory has always been a part of our culture,” Nahaan explained. “The more we’re able to practice, the more you’re able to empower future generations. The practice of having confidence - that was something that was broken among our people. That sense of wellbeing, to express yourself. That was the main idea of getting up there and speaking.”
They devised a format. There would be an open signup for those wishing to compete. After a first reading half the poets, generally four people, would advance to a second reading based on scores from audience judges. Half of the second group, two people, would advance to a third reading, after which a monthly slam champion would emerge. There would be an open mic, for people who wanted to perform a song or recite a poem without competing, and there would be a pre-slam time for those who wanted to make an announcement like promoting an event.
Their first official slam occurred in October of 2010, at The Canvas Community Art Studio and Gallery, where Eriksen worked at the time. They were intent on their mission of the slams not acting just as a performance, but a way to connect the audience with the people sharing.
Eriksen said that she would tell people, “If you feel a poet, what they’re saying, if those words resonate with you, give them a shout out, ‘Ohh, ahh,’ clap your hands.” Eriksen continued, “There are times that people are reading work that have been difficult for them to produce. They may be working through parts of their identity and it’s challenging to write and they may be sensitive about reading it.” She encourages people to snap their fingers if they feel the vibe, a way to peacefully display respect and encouragement.
The monthly poetry slams took off in a big way. Their popularity centered on a connection that was fostered among everyone who attended. Eriksen explained that she wanted to impart that the slams could be used to bring the community together.
“It’s been that and more,” she said. “I’ve been blown away by the community support. It brought people together. We’ve seen people share tremendous parts of themselves.”
After 12 slams, the winners of each one competed in the first annual Grand Slam in October of 2011. Dee Jay DeRego claimed the Grand Slam title last fall.
DeRego described himself as, “Just some random dude,” who wandered into his first Woosh Kinaadeiyí slam with no intention of reading, but armed with a notebook. But there was an open slot.
“It was such a spin on everything I thought poetry was up until that point,” DeRego said. He said no one expected him to read, but he did. It was deadly silent when he read his first poem. But when he finished, “Everyone freaked out,” he said. “It was awkward. I said ‘Thank you,’ and left.”
“I always say that is my favorite moment: when the most unlikely poet takes the stage,” Eriksen said.
A few months after the Grand Slam, there was an effort to devise a name for the event other than the Juneau Poetry Slam, which it had been called the first year. Thirty potential names were submitted and Eriksen and Nahaan narrowed the selection to five. Juneau resident Ishmael Hope’s submission, Woosh Kinaadeiyí, which he said roughly translated from Tlingit to mean “Parallel Trails,” was included in the top five.
“We put it to a crowd vote, where people yelled and hollered and clapped,” Eriksen said. “Woosh Kinaadeiyí was a resounding win.”
As the second year of the slams progressed, the venue started to venture beyond The Canvas in an attempt to reach out to other subsections of the community.
“It’s been great for our outreach goals,” Eriksen said. “We go to the Valley and have people that wouldn’t have come downtown; we were at the Zach Gordon Youth Center and we had 10-year olds doing poems about their girlfriends, family and video games. We went to the library and had a whole different crowd.”
“When you see a young person up there,” Nahaan said, “Who’s able to express (him or herself) in a creative way, it makes your heart feel good.”
In the middle of the second year, a core group of “WooshKers” had emerged, people who were consistently performing and helping with the events. They decided to have a retreat this past summer. Around 15 to 20 people attended.
“We did visioning; it was partly for yourself as a poet - how do I grow and challenge myself?” Eriksen said. “Also, our goals. How can we connect with each other and support each other as writers? What else do we want to see?” Eriksen said she let fellow WooshKers step up and take organizational and leadership parts in the retreat. “It really started to look like an organization.”
But a formal organization it was not. On the drive back from the retreat Eriksen said she raised the idea of forming an official nonprofit.
“We were talking and organizing like a formal organization already,” she said. There was a positive response to the idea and a Board of Directors was created. “I automatically asked people who organized the retreat because they clearly had the passion and capacity and interest,” Eriksen explained. “I also picked a few other people, who were really committed, were a part of the Woosh K community.” The group includes Eriksen, Nahaan, DeRego, Bill Merk, Mike Christenson, Jacque Boucher and Kate Laster. Though the logistics of forming an official nonprofit organization are not quite completed, the board holds regular meetings.
At a recent meeting, board members met to discuss the planning of the second annual Grand Slam and to generally express their ideas and feelings of how the slams could grow. Items on the discussion table that evening were how to plan the Grand Slam to avoid competing with the popular Wearable Arts show, what to print on apparel and a Woosh Kinaadeiyí YouTube channel which DeRego is spearheading.
“Do you have any ideas for what you’d like to see on the channel?” DeRego asked the group. He talked about wanting to capture the passion he feels at the slams. He made a fist and raised into the air, hooting, “KaPOW.”
Now a seasoned WooshKer, DeRego reflected on his favorite aspects of the slams.
“I love it when old people come -- old poets who already think they know what poetry is,” he said. “They’ll come and see that the poets at Woosh are doing something completely different than anything they thought poetry was. There are people who are finding out you don’t have to have a black beret and accompany yourself on bongos. It blows away everything you would think poetry was.”
Boucher, who was hosting the meeting at her house in downtown Douglas, said she gravitated towards the slams in a backwards way. She had studied fiction, and attended a slam to promote the University of Alaska Southeast’s literary publication “Tidal Echoes.”
“They needed to fatten the roster a bit, so I dug up some old poems,” Boucher said. “I hoped they were slam caliber poems.” Apparently they were. She won that slam, in November of 2011, and will thus be one of the competitors at the second Grand Slam. “It was one of the few live events I’d been to in town where I laughed, I got choked up. It was this really deeply touching poetry; it was the whole package.”
“The way that I felt when I first slammed I will never be able to replicate,” Boucher said. “(There was) a sense of community and a high and I would love to capture that sense of enthusiasm and family that is just there. Outside the slam you’re a total stranger, but inside you can be someone’s best friend. There’s not a dynamic like that anywhere else.”
“Thanks for just saying that,” Eriksen replied.
At the meeting Laster sat on the floor sketching into a notebook. She said she got involved after just noticing the positive energy at the slams.
“I started noticing there were some really great poets in Juneau,” Laster said. “I would see them at poetry slams and get to know them through their poetry, which is a unique way to get to know someone. It’s a hidden part of someone that they are choosing to give to you that they’ve kept and sorted and organized to specifically share. It’s addictive.”
The sound of snapping fingers rose.
The second annual Woosh Kinaadeiyí Grand Poetry Slam is Oct. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center. The winners from the regular season slams -- DeRego, Boucher, Laster, Christenson, Emily King and Sydney Reese -- are this year’s contenders for the championship. The event will include opening performances by Javin Doropan, W.S. Merk, Daniel Kantak, David Parish, Guy “Ziggy” Unzicker, Marcella and Amoretta. DJ Manu will be making magic on the turntables. There will be an after party including a potluck. A $5 to $10 donation is suggested. For more information find Woosh Kinaadeiyí on Face Book.
• Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.