Vets vs. newbies at poetry’s grand slam in Modesto

Jesse Parent is a Salt Lake City-based poet.
Jesse Parent is a Salt Lake City-based poet. Julia Moench-Parent

Keeping a poetry slam in motion is no easy feat.

With 11 consecutive sellouts for Modesto’s signature poetry slam invitational, The Ill List, the event has nothing left to prove on the popularity and power front. So its co-founder Sam Pierstorff decided to mix things up for the competitors.

For this year, its 11th, The Ill List will pit protégés vs. mentors. The slam, which traditionally has brought in some of the top spoken-word artists regionally and nationally, will feature veteran and newcomer poets.

“After the 10-year anniversary last year, I felt like either that was going to be the end of the slam or we try to make it fresh in new ways,” Pierstorff said. “There are all these young up-and-comers from programs, like Youth Speaks in San Francisco and others, slamming. So I got some recommendations and thought I’d pit them against veterans on a huge stage. So it showcases young talent, and the veterans have to stay on their toes.”

The competition will feature four protégé poets and four mentor poets from the Bay Area and well beyond. Almost all the performers will be newcomers to The Ill List.

The mentors are:

▪ Javon Johnson – An assistant professor of performance and communication studies at San Francisco State University, Johnson began winning slam nationals in 2003. He has appeared on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam,” BET’s “Lyric Café,” and TV One’s “Verses & Flow,” and co-wrote the Showtime documentary “Crossover.” He has toured nationally with the spoken-word collective Fiveology and is a featured blogger for the Huffington Post.

▪ Joyce Lee – The 2009 and 2010 Oakland Grand Slam champion, she has been featured at various venues throughout California and the East Coast and on National Public Radio. She has been a performance competitor since age 11. Lee is The Ill List’s only returning performer.

▪ Jesse Parent – The second-place finisher at the 2010 and 2011 Individual World Poetry Slams, Parent also was a finalist at the 2012 Ontario International Poetry Slam. The Salt Lake City-based poet was on Top 10 teams in the 2011 and 2012 National Poetry Slams. His poetry has been featured on the Huffington Post, UpWorthy, TheBlaze.com and WorldStarHipHop.com.

▪ Thadra Sheridan – A poet, essayist, columnist, teacher and performer from Minneapolis, Sheridan has had her work published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Skyway News, Moxie Magazine, Rattle and several anthologies. Her writing has been honored by the Faulkner Society and the National League of American Pen Women, and she has been featured on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam,” Minnesota Public Radio, UpWorthy, Button Poetry and venues across the country. She has been a member of four National Poetry Slam teams.

The protégés are:

▪ Gretchen Bello Carvajal – A first-generation Filipino immigrant raised in the Bay Area, Carvajal is a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has opened for such acts as Bambu, the Blue Scholars, Ruby Ibarra, Rafael Casal and other notable artists. Carvajal got her start in the Bay Area Youth Speaks program.

▪ Imani Cezanne – San Diego native Cezanne is an acclaimed writer, performer, workshop facilitator, community organizer and poetry slam coach. She has released two spoken-word poetry albums, been on five National Poetry Slam teams and was featured on TV One’s “Verses & Flow.” This year, she placed second at the Women of the World Poetry Slam in Austin and ninth at the Individual World Poetry Slam in Phoenix.

▪ Jevon Cochran – Born in Detroit and raised in Oakland, Cochran recently graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in Spanish and Portuguese.

▪ Patrick Roche – The Princeton University student started performing as part of the university’s first slam poetry group, Ellipses. Roche helped Princeton earn third place in the nation at College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational 2014, and he received best persona poem of the competition. His work has been featured on Button Poetry, Upworthy, Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post and MSN.

This year, the slam sold out about a month in advance, the earliest yet. The large and enthusiastic crowd at the nearly 600-seat State Theatre is part of what attracts poets from all over to the event year after year.

Parent, who is coming from Salt Lake City, said the competition’s reputation is strong in the slam community.

“The hosts are really high-energy and wonderful people. They almost always have a big and boisterous crowd,” he said. “When you go to live theater, the magic of that performance is you can’t capture it again. The reactions, the feedback, the laughs, even just the poignant silences. So it is so important to have that crowd there waiting to give it all back to you.”

Parent is among the poets in this year’s competition to have gone viral with his work. One of his poems featured on the popular spoken-word YouTube channel Button Poetry has earned more than 2 million views. Another piece on Button Poetry by Roche has more than 4 million views.

The rise of YouTube and social media has given poets like Parent and the other competitors a way to spread their work and introduce those who may not be familiar with spoken word an introduction to the art form.

“The idea that we can get our poems out there in that way is so wonderful,” Parent said. “And not all slam poetry is traditional. It’s not what you’d expect to see in a poetry class. There’s an amazing diversity of what you can do with this art. It shows people what it can be, it doesn’t have to be what you think it is.”

To help spread the good word about The Ill List and poetry, representatives from Button Poetry will film this year’s events. Segments of the show will then be posted online, giving added exposure to veterans and newcomers alike.

Among the newcomers is Carvajal, who is at the University of Wisconsin on a scholarship for spoken word and hip-hop performance. She was excited and surprised to be invited to the competition. The 20-year-old performs mainly in the collegiate scene. A few of her mentors in poetry will be performing among the veterans at the event.

“When I heard about the theme, I was really flattered to be thought of as up-and-coming. The format is really neat. I think slam poetry and performance differs with generation,” she said. “You’ll see differences in performance in what people talk about based on if they are a veteran or a newcomer. A lot of folks who have been to The Ill List have been hyping up crowds and I’m excited to see what Modesto’s got.”

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on Twitter @marijkerowland.

The Ill List 11

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: State Theatre, 1307 J St., Modesto

Tickets: Sold out

Call: (209) 527-4697

ONLINE: www.thestate.org