Listening at a poetry slam is like being trusted with an emotional secret. That’s how Sam Pierstorff describes the intensity at the Ill List, the popular poetry slam he co-founded and organizes in Modesto.
“Much of slam poetry comes from one’s own experiences and those emotions can be raw and the details can be stunning,” he said in an email interview. “I think our audience can sense the authenticity of a poem and a poet. They can tell that what they’re saying is real and raw and important enough to be shared.
“It’s a lot like listening to someone tell a secret. “We are compelled to listen if someone whispers, ‘Hey, I really need to share something with you. I haven’t told anyone. Can I please tell you?’ That’s the feeling we have each time a poet steps up to the microphone.”
That compulsion to listen continues to attract audiences to the slam, set for Saturday, Dec. 9, at the State Theatre. As always, the event sold out early.
The almost rabid draw to the Ill List each year offers a glimpse at the poetry scene in Modesto, which is “thriving,” said Pierstorff, a former Modesto Poet Laureate and current English professor at Modesto Junior College. Slam poetry in particular is growing, both here and nationally.
“Poetry slams are like poetic speakeasies where you can go and listen and perform, and yes, it’s intoxicating but not every knows it’s there,” he said. “However, that’s changing quickly.”
Like most things, social media has increased that awareness of the art form, Pierstorff said, pointing to spoken work artist Neil Hilborn, whose poem “OCD” has more than 80 million YouTube hits. “We had Neil at the ILL List last year. People knew him and got autographs and loved hearing him live.”
This year’s artists are Aman Batra, Asia Bryant-Wilkerson, Kito Fortune, William Nu’utupu Giles, Mercedez Holtry, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Jesse Parent and Buddy Wakefield. Pierstorff again will emcee the slam, now in its 13th year.
While all the poets are renowned, he said, one stands out for being the event’s first international poet, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan from Leeds, UK. “Her extraordinary poem, “This Is Not A Humanizing Poem” about Islamophobia went viral and when we caught wind of it, we had to try to book her.”
Thanks to the poets and the nature of slams, Pierstorff said the Ill List continues to be a unique event that goes beyond merely entertainment. “It’s thought-provoking, inspiring, motivating, politically and emotionally charged. It leads to thoughtful conversations and sometimes even discomfort. But we believe that great art challenges and provokes people in addition to making people laugh or cry.”
The popularity of the event has prompted his team to organize a second slam for the new year, “The Chill List,” planned for July at the State Theatre, which will feature four national slam teams rather than individual competitors.
The Ill List is community-driven, Pierstorff said, supported by local business owners and individuals. “The ILL List is not an easy production to put on. It takes months of work and a lot of money. I am thankful to our awesome community sponsors who keep this event alive.”
Poetry slams not only are compelling, he said, they also can be eye opening. “If I had a nickel for every person who came to a poetry slam and said, ‘Wow, I didn't know poetry could be like that!’ I’d be a very wealthy poet.”
They also can be challenging for audiences.
“The ILL List is a Free Speech event. It is exciting and powerful, but it may challenge some people in the audience. I think it’s okay to lean into the discomfort and listen to differing views without feeling the pressure to accept them,” he said. “We don’t all think alike or share the same experiences, but we can (mostly) get along if we take the time to listen to each other more, and that’s the power of poetry slams. It’s an opportunity to listen and to learn.”