On the second Saturday of every December, you can count on crowds packing the 600-seat State Theatre in downtown Modesto. Audience members fill every seat not for a rock concert or a hot new movie, but for the annual Ill List invitational poetry slam.
Organizers Sam Pierstorff and Greg Edwards spend months searching YouTube for the hottest performance poets around the country. The poets compete for a $1,000 first prize and $500 second prize, with the winners chosen by judges randomly selected from the audience.
For this year's ninth annual event, they have recruited eight poets, including New Yorker Taylor Mali, best known for the often-quoted poem "What Teachers Make." He won National Poetry Slam championships in 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2002.
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submitted - Taylor Mali
"He's one of the slam originals," said Pierstorff, who teaches English at Modesto Junior College. "He's been around since the early 1990s. He wrote some of the rules that poetry slam international is continuing to use today. He wrote books on slam strategy early on."
Other competitors are:
Katelyn Lucas, who runs the monthly slam at California State University, East Bay, and is co-founder of The Voice of a Generation, a multimedia arts company.
Robert Zenz, a Fresno poet and frequent competitor at the now-defunct Slam on Rye monthly poetry slam in Modesto.
Sam Sax, the first Bay Area Unified Grand Slam champion.
Carlos Robson, winner of the National Poetry Slam championship in 2007 and 2008 as a member of the North Carolina team SlamCharlotte.
Nikki Blak, a competitor on Los Angeles, Hollywood and San Diego slam teams and the 2010 Los Angeles Grand Slam champion.
George Yamazawa Jr., Ill List 8 champion from North Carolina, National Poetry Slam finalist and two-time Southern Fried champion.
Prentice Powell, representing Oakland as part of the Blackson 5 Poetry Collective.
"The poets are diverse in terms of gender, sexual orientation and style some are funny some are very, very serious," Pierstorff said. "They have different lifestyles, different life paths."
He said audience members can expect an emotional and inspiring competition. The show will highlight The PLACE, Modesto's youth group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioners ages 14 to 20. "Entertainment value is always a premium but this year we're bringing a message," Pierstorff said.
Mali, 47, said he was glad to be able to participate in the Ill List this year because schedule conflicts have prevented him from competing before.
"As annual slams go, this is quite a prestigious event," he said.
It also gives him a chance to see his Modesto friend Tamara McCarthy, who teaches at Enochs High School. He is guest teaching all her classes Dec. 7 and will participate in the school's third annual poetry slam benefit that day from 6 to 8 p.m. Proceeds will support the journalism and media programs at Enochs and Gregori high schools.
Mali stopped competing in slams for a while after 2005 and concentrated more on his own writing and speaking engagements. A few years ago, he started up again, competing in individual world poetry slam championships and competing in a slam in New York City.
He started slamming 20 years ago when he was in graduate school at Kansas State University. He loved the art form because it combined his love of drama (he went to drama school) and his skill at poetry (he earned a master's degree in poetry). "It was a great way to get credit and accolades for what I already wanted to do."
He said slam competitions have changed a lot over the past two decades, becoming less experimental and more angry. Poets tend to get higher scores when they show self-righteous indignation or passion.
"The shortcut to passion is just pretending you're really angry," he said.
But judges and audiences still also respond to beauty, originality, guts and the willingness to reveal their hearts. Mali said he will go more that route when he competes at the Ill List.
Fans of Mali will notice that he recently cut his long hair. He donated his long locks to the American Cancer Society after he completed a 12-year project of convincing 1,000 people to become teachers. A former middle school teacher, Mali has been an outspoken advocate for the value of educators. He said he has been pleased that his poem "What Teachers Make," which defends teachers, has inspired many people to go into education. (To see a video of Mali performing this poem, go to www.modbee.com/scene and click on the link with this story.)
He said he is glad to be getting back to his roots and competing in slams. He loves getting audience members' honest responses to his work. "There's something about having a thick skin and the immediate feedback as a poet," he said.