Student aims to compete in world poetry competition

by Weston Whitener

One competition happening this weekend does not involve a ball, but rather a test of artistic talent. Elite performance poets will compete at the 2013 Individual World Poetry Slam (IWPS) in Spokane Oct. 2-5.

“People are coming from all around North America,” senior theology major Curtis Gatley said. “It’s 72 of North America’s best poets, converging on Spokane for four days of competition to name a champion.”

Gatley, a seasoned competitive poet, has been editing his poems for the last several months, as well as perfecting his performance and memorization in preparation for this event, he said.

He will be one of the few Whitworth students vying for a place in the Individual World Poetry Slam Wednesday, Oct. 2.

Slam poetry marries free expression with competition, creating a contest in which poets must prepare a three-minute performance to be judged by five randomly selected audience members on a scale of 0-10, Gatley said.

After two to three rounds of poetry, the poet with the highest total score wins the slam — or, in the case of the IWPS, moves on to the next bout in the tournament bracket, according to the IWPS website.

Gatley will perform in the “Last Chance Slam” on Wednesday in hopes of filling the last open spot in the IWPS bracket. His bid for a place in IWPS is the culmination of a four-year career on the poetry slam scene, and a lifetime of writing poetry, he said.

“I’ve written poetry for about as long as I’ve written,” Gatley said.

It was not until his freshman year in college that he was exposed to poetry’s aggressive side via YouTube videos of “Def Poetry Jam” and “Brave New Voices.”

“I kind of just fell in love,” he said.

Gatley decided to compete in a college slam competition at the “Get Lit” festival, a celebration of the literary arts. He has been slamming poetry ever since, drawing inspiration from past experiences as well as theology.

“My niche is ‘God poems,’” he said. “Being a theology student, God shows up in almost every one of my poems, and not usually in a good role. I’ve got one poem which is my answer to the problem of evil, I’ve got another poem which is about original sin, one poem that uses big theological concepts but is really about me missing my best friend who passed.”

He also writes about his family and relationships.

Even with his experience, Gatley said he will have to bring his best to the “Last Chance Slam” if he wants to get a shot at IWPS.

“I hilariously almost always take fourth,” he said. “I’ve never placed, because placing is first through third, which gives you points towards competing nationally.”

He will be looking to change that record Wednesday.


“There are two poems that I’m trying to work into my memorized repertoire,” Gatley said. “A big thing [in slam poetry] is memorization, making sure that you got a poem up down left and sideways. Can you do the poem happy, can you do the poem sad, can you do the poem angry, can you do the poem slow, can you do the poem fast? If you have that down, you’ve got it.”

Senior history major Sarah Beth Gumm, one of Gatley’s fans and  also his good friend, has been an audience member at many Spokane poetry slams and has even read her poems non-competitively at “Broken Mic” poetry readings at local restaurant Neato Burrito.

The poems that hit at the visceral level, with which the audience really gets a peek into the poets’ story and soul, are the ones that will get the best scores, she said. Gumm has not yet tried competitive poetry.

“It’s scary enough to go up when you’re not being judged,” she said.

Both Gatley and Gumm described slams as an emotional workout.

“It’s so beautiful and it hurts you so much and you’re so thankful and so angry,” Gatley said.

The camaraderie that slams and readings usually bring has fostered a deeply-connected community of poets and poetry enthusiasts.

The slam poetry community in Spokane is one that has attracted up-an-coming slam poet sophomore Rebecca Seideman.

“Everyone’s really encouraging to each other. Even though I didn’t make it to the next round, I got so much affirmation from people I didn’t even know,” Seideman said. “We’re all close friends because it’s like you’re exposing your soul.”

Seideman has only recently begun doing slam poetry, introduced to the Spokane slam by Gatley, she said.

“I’ve always been a writer of some sort, but I didn’t know that slam poetry was even a thing,” Seideman said.

With Gatley’s help, she entered her first competition, drawing inspiration for her poems from relationships, family and life experiences.

“You know that if it’s something you don’t want to talk about, you should probably write about it,” she said.

The poetry aspect of vulnerability, she said, that allows her to get to know other poets well.

This community extends beyond the boundaries of Spokane, weaving through poetry venues throughout the U.S.

“I can rattle off these names, I could tell you poets from Cincinnati, from Louisiana, from Boston, from California,” Gatley said.

Through the slam community, Gatley said he has developed a national network of people who would gladly provide him with a place to stay if he traveled to their cities.

Though competitors may be friendly, slams are often heated.

“There are people who are rivals, there are people you want to take down, there are people you want to beat. Especially at the national level, there are some pretty heated bouts,” Gatley said. “But at the end of the day, we’re celebrating an art.”

The IWPS Finals will be held at the Bing Crosby Theater, with tickets costing $25. Preliminary bouts are cheaper, with ticket prices ranging from free to $7.

Student passes, which cover admission to preliminary bouts, late-night events and finals are $50 and are available to students under 21 with valid student ID.

For more information about the slam, including dates for preliminary bouts and venues, visit

Contact Weston Whitener at

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