IT’S THE ONLY TIME AND PLACE WHERE 72 WOMEN CHAMPIONS MEET, and compete face-to-face. While it sounds like a season of E! Network’s, “Total Divas,” the fists on this stage are metaphorical—it’s the Women of the World Poetry Slam.
This year’s competition is in Austin, Texas, beginning March 19. Each slam venue is allowed to send one woman representative to WOWPS, but not just anyone. The representative for each venue is the slam champion, proving to be the best female poet in her venue and subsequently in this case, in her city.
Louisiana is sending three representatives: Leslie D. “Leslie D!” Rose, from Baton Rouge’s Eclectic Truth; Dena “The Wordsmith” Slaughter, from Lafayette Poetry Community; and Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa, from Slam New Orleans.
Rose started participating in spoken word, non- competitively in 2002, six years before Poetry Slam, Inc. launched WOWPS. She did her first reading at the Hard Rock Café in New Orleans, at a weekly open mic event called Up Close and Personal.
“I didn’t have a problem standing in front of a crowd and telling a story, but to get up there and read my poems was different,” she said. “I was really corny. All of my poems were about love and silly things.”
While Rose continued to participate in the readings, she did—what she considers to be—her first spoken word performance while competing in the Miss Omega Psi Phi pageant in 2004.
“It was my first time not having a paper,” she said. “It was my first time actually engaging the crowd, I was moving around the stage, eye contact, vocal inflections, because I was in a pageant against girls who were dancing and singing.”
While Rose didn’t place in the pageant, her poem struck a chord with many in the audience, who told her how much they loved it. She became a regular at Up Close
and Personal, while pursuing her journalism degree at Xavier University of Louisiana.
A year after moving to Baton Rouge, in 2006, she started attending Eclectic Truth at the suggestion of—her now husband—Donney Rose and, now International World Poetry Slam Champion, Chancelier “Xero” Skidmore.
After two weeks at Eclectic Truth, Rose decided to compete in the slam. The first and second place poets from the slam each week would compete in the grand slam at the end of the month, for a cash prize.
“My first open slam, I won,” she said. “I was serious about it. I wrote my poems that week, memorized them that week, and was ready to go. I was entirely too sassy, but that’s what won my slams back then.”
Once WOWPS started in 2008, the women poets at Eclectic Truth were excited to compete and decide who would represent
Baton Rouge in the competition.
“We wanted to get all of the women to compete,” she said. “It was our all-female thing, it was almost like a sorority, we had slumber parties to prepare so we had a good time with it, but I never wanted to go, so I would always half-ass it.”
While Rose had competed in team competitions, she knew an individual competition would be much different. And so, each year, Baton Rouge sent a representative to WOWPS, Rose going just once, as an audience member.
“I, along with many other women that hadn’t been to the competition before felt like it was the Special Olympics,” she said. “Why do we need our own
competition? But when I went, I realized how necessary it was for this community. It’s like going to this all women’s empowerment conference.”
After such a positive experience, Leslie promised herself that if WOWPS ever came close to Louisiana, she was going to try and compete. But it was in Denver, Co. and then Minneapolis, Minn.
Out of the 72 poets competing, only 12 make it to final stage, where there are cuts each round, until the best female poet in the world is named. In 2009, Baton Rouge’s representative, Taaj Freeman tied for 10th place. She is the only Baton Rouge poet to make the WOWPS final stage thus far.
After having a bad experience with poetry competition in general, Rose decided she was done with slam.
“I got really burned out and wasn’t interested in slam anymore,” she said. “So, I sat down. Then, I find out WOWPS is in Austin, and I thought, ‘Do I want to do this? Do I want to write some poems?’”
Despite not having written any new poems in a year, she sat down to write all new poems to compete with and take to WOWPS. After winning the Baton Rouge slam by one-tenth of a point, Rose is taking her work to Austin.
“I had made up in my mind, nobody is coming for me, I’m going, I want to go, and nobody’s taking it away from me,” she said. “And when I get there, I’m not going to come in 72nd place, forget that.”
Right now, Rose is hoping her fundraiser picks up so she can actually pay for the trip to Austin. She is also working with Skidmore for performance tips.
The poems she’s taking to WOWPS—ranging in
subject matter from a family suicide attempt to body image issues—are part of a manuscript she is creating, as part of her desire to empower other women.
“I want to see how other women feel about these poems,” she said. “I would love to have a trophy, but the title doesn’t mean as much as it sounds like. It says you have an audience, and that’s semi-validating.”
Rose will be competing against 71 other women, including Slaughter, the Lafayette representative.
Slaughter will be attending WOWPS for the first time, and she said she’s very excited about it.
“I can’t wait,” she said. “I’m looking forward to hearing the other poets, but I’m most nervous about meeting the required time limits.”
Competitors must perform a one-minute, two-minute, three-minute and a four-minute poem in preliminary bouts. If the poet advances to finals, three more three- minute poems are required.
“I consider it a success any time someone can relate to something I’ve said and use it as inspiration and encouragement,” Slaughter said.
Slaughter and Rose will join another WOWPS newbie, Katwiwa. Born in Kenya, Katwiwa calls New Orleans home. She attended her first spoken word show in middle school, called Project 2050.
“I had never heard poetry that was so relevant to my life and experiences,” she said. “I was so used to poetry being an ‘art for art’s sake’ based on what I had been taught and the poetry I encountered in school.”
Katwiwa joined the group the following year and has
been writing poetry ever since. She did however, take a break from performing spoken word after high school, when she moved to New Orleans to work and go to school. She still wrote, but didn’t find herself back on the scene until last spring.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate to find a supportive collective of poets in the city known as the Who Dat Poets, who have encouraged me and been an integral part of my seeing immediate success in the local scene.”
She was named the Who Dat Poet Rookie of the Year in 2013, and was also named the New Orleans Performing Artist of 2013 by RAW Artists.
“Of course, one of the things I considered a real mark of success was making it onto the 2014 edition of Team Slam New Orleans and being the top female
finisher which is what is allowing me to go to WOWPS,” she said.
Katwiwa said she is looking forward to connecting with other poets, hearing their poetry and being fully immersed in the poetic environment.
“Since I’m still in college and my school doesn’t have a college slam team, I don’t get a lot of time outside of my time with Team Slam New Orleans to just be in a poetic atmosphere, and even then, I know when I leave our meetings I still have to go and study for a midterm or something,” she said. “When I’m at WOWPS though, I will be 100 percent in the poetry moment and I’m really looking forward to that.”
Katwiwa, or “FreeQuency,” as she is known on the mic, is recognized most for her ability to connect with the audience during each performance. She writes from a place of inspiration, often using poetry as a way to communicate her message—including a tribute to the late Trayvon Martin. But while her performance has earned her praise, it’s also something she’s concerned about, as WOWPS approaches.
“My biggest fear at WOWPS is that I won’t perform at the level I want to, but I think that’s a problem I can solve by practicing and building my performance confidence in the weeks leading up to WOWPS,” she said. “I’m not going to worry about it; I’m just going to put in the proper time this competition requires.
By Holly A. Phillips
The Drum Contributing Writer