Pridefest poetry slam gives voice to the unheard


Anna Ralls begins PrideSlam with two original poems. PrideSlam had an open mic section that involved a reciprocal relationship between the audience and poet. Rose Bythrow

Poets explored themes of anxiety, dead-end jobs and love ballads that take cues from professional wrestling at Prideslam, Pridefest's first poetry slam. 

Alex Hollett took the stage in front of over 100 people at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Rhino's Youth Center to kick off the event.

“We’re on queer time now,” Hollett said.  

The evening commenced with an open mic segment. Performer Anna Ralls recited a short poem about anxiety during this portion of the poetry slam.

"Anxiety is a blanket my mother knitted before she knew I would ever exist," she said. "This is what happens when you handcuff two strangers together and tell them to tango in a dark and silent ballroom."

Various performers took turns reciting their poetry, with the portion concluding with laughter and applause in equal parts. After the open mic segment, the Prideslam competition began. 

Nine entrants provided their poetry for the competition and were scored by randomly selected audience members. For Hollett, a hope for Prideslam was to provide a platform for queer poets. 

“There’s been a reinvigoration of thinking about art and activism and those relationships within the queer community,” Hollett said. “This is a chance for queer poets in the community to come and pontificate, speak truth to power.” 

Poets had three minutes to present their poems and covered topics such as racism, being transgender, femininity and finding a voice within the oppression they face. 

Poetry slams are a way for poets to focus on things that are harder to bear, Hollett said. 

One poet offered her story on how her gay uncles beautified her for prom to the point where her date was intimidated. Another poet talked about how being transgender results in an “invisibility” among society, as though people don’t acknowledge the community's existence. 

According to the Bloomington Prideslam webpage, the foundation and future of Pride is in resistance. For Hollett, art is as much an activist project as an artistic one. 

“Spoken word and slam is committed to elevating discourse of justice and equity, and we’re really working hard with Prideslam to make sure those narratives are foregrounded and privileged,” he said.  

The event accepted donations at the door of Rhino's Youth Center, a free after-school center for programs in radio, video, music and other media forms. 

While the performers shared their voices onstage, the audience could look to stage right to view the rules of the space listed on a large black slate. Among “No fighting” and “No hate speech” there were rules like “Sing along if so moved” and “laugh at yourself.” 

Hollett said Rhino’s Youth Center is a safe space for vulnerable students to create music and art and hang out with friends. 

After three rounds of heartfelt and comedic poetry, poet Jasper Wirthshafter was deemed the winner with a poem about being transgender and dealing with feelings of isolation. The event was followed by opportunities to socialize with the poets and audience. 

"It’s great for the community to listen to folks talk about their lived experiences," Hollett said.  “It’s a rad and unique opportunity for people to make connections to each other. It’s also really beneficial to see how many of us exist and how many of us are engaged and active.”  

Pridefest begins Aug. 26, and will include music, drag shows and educational workshops from organizations such as Middle Way House and UndocuHoosier Alliance. 

Art is not only a means of activism, but a means of connection to queer communities, Hollett said.  

“Through art, people can develop empathy, develop listening skills and get a better sense of the experience,” Hollett said. “My goal is to provide a platform for queer people to speak their truth."

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