All-woman poetry slam hits Twin Cities

ROB CALLAHAN | Updated 3/14/2013

Top local female poets will represent the Twin Cities in this week’s Women of the World championships.

Poets Kait Rokowski (left), Sierra DeMulder and Anna Binkovitz.

On a cold Monday night in February, Anna Binkovitz stepped quietly away from the mic at Groundswell Coffee near Macalester College. After reading some recent work to promote her new chapbook, she found a seat behind the merch table and set about selling and signing her wares. As she worked a small crowd a part of her mind may have wandered, preoccupied with the next great step along her path to success as an up-and-coming poet. The fifth annual Women of the World Poetry Slam championships were coming to the Twin Cities, and Binkovitz is one of a handful of local poets slated to compete March 6-9.

Binkovitz, 20, faces local competition that includes the sharp, poignant stylings of Sierra DeMulder, 26, as well as the bold, outspoken mien of Kait Rokowski, 22, a previous Women of the World contender. The three will pit their individual talents against each other, as well as other local performers and wordsmiths from North America and as far away as New Zealand. While each poet’s approach reflects her own background, the three make note of the common bonds they’ve shared as women who compete in slams.

“At nationals, I’m pegged as ‘that girl’ who does ‘that kind of thing,’ ” said Rokowski, referring to her louder, bolder style. “I learned to project not from competing against women, but from trying to be heard in a room full of male poets.”

“I’m usually only one of a few women at slams,” said Binkovitz.

DeMulder agreed: “Women who are also poets are judged by different criteria. As in, is what she’s doing appropriate for a woman to be doing? It’s harder for a woman to be loud onstage because it’s more surprising culturally to see a woman being loud or angry.”

Poetry slams originated in mid-’80s Chicago and soon spread nationwide. With a growing emphasis on entertainment and performance, slams shifted from showcases where a restrained unburdening of one’s soul might gain an appreciative audience to an environment where restraint was frequently treated as superfluous — mere ballast weighing the slammer down.

That shift often rewarded the loud, angry or shocking, and men came to dominate. Slams grew more competitive and cutthroat, and female slammers often felt stifled by the man-laden atmosphere. Women of the World was devised to highlight some of the art’s less hyperbolic practitioners.

“This doesn’t feel competitive,” said Binkovitz. “It’s meant to be a coming together.”

Although Women of the World is still a competition with a winner chosen, the slams themselves more closely resemble a poetry festival or a series of showcases than verbal knock-down-drag-outs.

The three poets have healthy professional and personal relationships. Rokowski, who has competed against both, says that their relationships are strong, but being rivals does have an impact. “Competition’s effect on our relationships depends on the person, the relationship and the day, but I love them all,” she said. “Sierra is like a big sister to me and Anna is like a little sister.”

On being competitors, DeMulder noted, “Women are already pitted against each other, and you have to get over that if you want to be happy.”

The Twin Cities won a bid to host Women of the World in part by citing the presence of a large, enthusiastic spoken-word community. The thriving local scene has enticed talent to move from all over the world. DeMulder and Rokowski both moved here from New England. Binkovitz, the newcomer of the three, hails from Ohio. While DeMulder and Rokowski are proven performers, a lot of eyes are focused on Binkovitz’s fast rise.

“If she wins, it’ll be a bigger deal,” says DeMulder. “Because she’s still new and unknown.”

The three, along with Minneapolis mainstay Cynthia French, will represent the Twin Cities at Women of the World’s preliminary bouts Thursday and Friday at Kieran’s Irish Pub and the Institute of Production and Recording. The top poets will move on to the finals, held at Aria at Jeune Lune on Saturday.

The first-place winner may find herself inundated with new opportunities. Tour organizers and renowned poetry presses may be watching, and all of the poets are aware that they’re being scouted. A win or memorable performance can make all the difference between a book deal and a national tour, or another year of honing your skills in front of off-campus coffeeshop crowds.

Women of the World Poetry Slam Championships

What: All-woman competition with 80 poets from around the world.

Last Chance Slam and Opening Night Party : 8 p.m. Wed. Kieran’s Irish Pub, 601 1st Av. N., Mpls.

Preliminaries: 7 & 9 p.m. Thu.-Fri. Kieran’s Irish Pub, 601 1st Av. N., Mpls.; Institute of Production and Recording, 300 1st Av. N., Mpls.

Finals: 7 p.m. Sat., Aria at Jeune Lune, 105 N. 1st St., Mpls.

Tickets: $5-$25; festival pass $40-$50.