By Sarah Steighner
EAST LIBERTY, Pa. –The Pittsburgh Poetry Collective is at the forefront of the Pittsburgh poetry scene, offering opportunities for self-expression and the arts to thrive in the community.
The Pittsburgh Poetry Collective provides numerous programs including WordPlay workshops, the WordUp program that connects poets and the community, the YoungSteel youth slam league, and the Steel City Slam adult league.
The Steel City Slam league holds weekly events at the Capri Pizzeria and Bar located at 6001 Penn Avenue in East Liberty. Judges are selected randomly from the crowd, who rate each poem immediately following the performance. Based on the rankings at the end of each year, a team is then sent to the National Poetry Slam.
Each poetry night provides the chance for up to nine poets to sign up and perform. Additionally, up to six open-mic spots are available. With sign-ups starting at 7:45 p.m., the show begins around 8:30 p.m. and is finished by 11 p.m.
One of the recent poetry slam nights took place on Feb. 23. A small stage fashioning Pittsburgh Poetry Collective banners on each side was set up in the corner of the Capri Pizzeria and Bar. Poets signed up for their chance to perform as the audience mingled around talking and meandering over to the bar for a drink.
Around 8:40 p.m., a guitarist took the stage to play his emotional, but original renditions of Sam Smith and Christina Perri song covers. Lori Beth Jones, the M.C. of the evening, then took the stage in an enthusiastically loud and charismatic manner. She addressed the poets, audience, and judges with her witty laced banter while describing the rules of the evening.
As the poetry portion of the evening started, some poets read from tattered notebooks, while others recited from heart, and the majority read from their phones reflecting the modernized poetry era.
As the eight poets stepped forward, they each had their own unique style. One captivating style held true for many as they gradually got louder and faster with energy and emotion, never missing a beat except when pausing for emphasis. Poet Jesse Welch used entrancing hand motions that only furthered the audience’s attention as he stepped down from the podium and into the audience to complete his performance.
Themes of each poetry included everything from racism, working in the fast food industry, relationships, depression, heritage, and techni-colored worlds.
A short intermission took place after the first round, where announcements of upcoming poetry events in Pittsburgh were listed. A sweet and endearingly relatable poem that started out, “I liked you more than I thought I would” was read before the next round began.
All eight poets made it to the second round to perform another set of poems. Poet Danielle Ramsay performed the first poem of round two with her piece, “Diagnostic Criteria.” This edgy poem about depression, and struggle ended with a hopeful “Fragile but still flying” line.
Ramsay explained the variety of things she writes about. “I’m interested in raising awareness about mental illness and women’s rights,” Ramsay said as she talked about her positive experience with the Steel City Slam. “The Steel City Slam has already been a very important experience for me as a poet, by expanding my horizons, pushing me to be better, and especially by giving me the opportunity to represent the slam at a national event,” she added.
While points were tallied after the second round, a guitarist took the stage again this time performing Mumford and Son’s “White Blank Page” in a rugged, but calm demeanor.
Three poets made it to the third round. Among them were Daniele Ramsay, Malcolm Friend, and Jesse Welch.
Ramsay performed a piece about being half Mexican. She described it as “the strange struggle with racism and feeling a part of the marginalized, but also never experiencing the real struggle of being a person of color.”
Friend’s final poem was titled “Roberto Clemente’s Letter Home.” His serious, but captivating poem infused with Spanish, won him second place.
Welch strongly began his final poem about a girl who smelled colors. His cleverly crafted wordsmanship left a smile on the audience’s faces and won him first place for the evening.
The next Steel City Slam night is March 24 at 9 p.m. at the Capri Pizzeria & Bar. The Steel City Slam Grand Finals will be April 17 at the Union Project on 801 N. Negley Ave in Pittsburgh. The top 13 Pittsburgh slam poets will battle each other to win a spot on the Steel City Slam Team that will be representing the city at the National Poetry Slam in Oakland, Calif. For more details about the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective organization visit http://www.pghpoetry.org