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‘Poetry is Therapy’: a night at The Bishop Bar

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The Bloomington Poetry Slam’s co-host Andrea Sterling took to the stage in her red one-piece pantsuit with sparkles purposefully laid on her cheekbones and shoulders. The words she spoke were of heartbreak and longing, power and regret. It was a cool Friday evening on Sept. 15, 2023, fall just around the corner. Next door, upbeat music could be heard through the wall from the bar side of The Bishop Bar. On this side were poets taking in the words of one another.  

“WOO!” Sterling says at the end of her poem, arms flying up in the air. A big smile broke across her face as though she hadn’t just delivered a heart wrenching solo piece about unrequited love. The audience erupted into clapping and cheers. It seemed the excitement for The Bishop’s Bloomington Slam Poetry competition and featured poet Ellise Smith rippled through each individual.   

“Welcome to the Poetry Slam! You’ll be clapping all night!” Sterling said like a WWE wrestling match announcer, only here sat a full house of beanies, sweaters and button up shirts with black doc martens. Here, artists gathered. 

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Sterling has been a co-host of the poetry slam since 2017 and has been attending competitions at The Bishop since 2015. She came to IU to receive a masters in African American and African Diaspora studies, and Bloomington is where she found the slam scene.  

She co-hosts with Dan Sullivan, nicknamed “Sully,” who received his MFA in poetry from IU in 2016. In 2018 he started hosting, and he said his favorite part is the communal experience where people can be a part of the performance, not just observers. He believes that Bloomington Poetry Slam is one of the college town’s best kept secrets.  

The two inherited the Bloomington Poetry Slam comeptition from former host Hilda Davis, who first inherited it from the slam poetry competition founder Ciara Miller. Sterling explained that over time, writers who often attend the poetry events emerge as possible future hosts. They are slowly given more responsibilities at the events until the time comes for it to be passed down. 

“She thought there weren't a lot of spaces to let loose, to be free, especially (for) those who are seen as marginalized,” Sterling said of Miller during her opening speech.  

The night was full of just that, letting loose and being free.  

Before the show began, audience members trickled in, seats slowly filled. The crowd ranged from college kids to adult couples on dates along with poets performing that night and artists coming to enjoy the show.  

Poet PDVNCH (pee-dove-inch) sat towards the back with a tripod and phone set up for filming. He was first invited to The Bishop to watch a poetry slam by Miller. After his peers pushed him to perform in 2016, he said that ever since, he’s come to believe his purpose is to stir inspiration in others.  

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“Poetry is therapy,” he said. “We as humans drown with struggles, trials and tribulations and as we go on, we need these outlets. Poetry slam allows that.”  

As he performed his poem of the night during open mic, he moved across the stage in rhythm with the words he had strung together. At his last line, he referenced Medusa and froze as though being turned to stone by her, to which the audience responded with loud claps and cheers of excitement.  

Other people in the audience were simply there for their love of writing. IU freshman Emma Hughvanks said she’s always had a love for music and songwriting. She appreciates how poetry has meaning with just words on a page, no bass drops or music needed. 

A couple on a date, Jennifer and Justin Crossley, were also there because of a shared interest in poetry, and to show support for Smith. Tonight was their first night at the Bloomington Poetry Slam competition, however they had been to ones in other places before. Justin has been friends with Smith for a few years, so he and Jennifer were excited to support her poetry performance.  

“It’s a nice date night, something different,” Justin said. 

He also mentioned that it’s good for these kinds of spaces to exist, especially here in Bloomington.  

The slam competition consisted of two rounds with three contestants, who were introduced with their stage name and had their own style of written word and performance. 

First up was Frick who discussed struggling to find oneself and wrestling with self love.  

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Then, Tay performed. Her hand movements were fluid and steady, adding meaning to her message about women’s rights and struggling with societal expectations of women. Last was Kay who spoke on a need for humans to slow down. His words were calming to the audience; a piece of tranquility rippled through everyone.  

After each round, the judges who volunteered before the beginning of the show held up their plaques with numbers ranging from one to 10 for scoring. Sully counted up the point averages who said the calculations may not be perfect, but that this was for fun anyway. After the end of the first round, featured poet Ellise Smith was next.  

As the other poets performed, Smith, a Detroit, Michigan native and IUPUI Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, sat towards the front. She clasped her hands together while waiting under the sign that had her name in black, bold letters. She’s known for her ability to go up and freestyle in slam competitions. In fact, she won her very first competition in 2016 by going up on The Bishop’s stage and allowing the words to come to her. She recalled it was stressful being in a competition of other poets with degrees and more experience than her. She trusted herself though, which ended up paying off when her name was announced at the very stage she was returning to tonight, Sept. 15, 2023, six years later, as the featured slam poet.  

Her poems focused on body diversity and rebelliously loving oneself for whatever physical look they have, even if it's not a societally accepted one.  

Smith took tonight, Sept. 15, 2023, to read some of her poems written on her phone. She’s been trying to record more poems in hopes of writing a book rather than performing them once. She said it would obviously be hard for someone to have to call her every time they wanted to hear her poetry, so she thought writing it down would be helpful. 

As she walked up to the stage, the audience was ecstatic with loud cheers. The all black outfit, consisting of a sweatshirt and jeans, was the same as what she wore during her first competition. She then recited words with rhythm and rhyme, focusing on the degradation women often feel about not fitting a stereotypical body type. She discussed heartbreak and joked that everyone needs to get heartbroken before their 30s, just to get it out of the way.  

Then, in the middle of her last poem, she put her phone down and the words came tumbling out of her. Her last line was in reference to a rocky relationship with her father. 

“I recognize my story, and I’m trying to share with others,” Smith said. “We’ll create glory, and the next time you check me, make sure you write your own story.” 

The crowd once again roared with clapping, stomping and cheering. She smiled and walked off the stage, giving space for the second round of the competition.  

At the end of the night, all of the poets lined up on stage. Everyone clapped for Tay as she came in first place, Frick in second and Kay in third. Congratulations went around to everyone in the room, the buzzing continued as the crowd of artists exited the doors.  

The next Bloomington Poetry Slam will take place on Oct. 20, 2023 at The Bishop Bar, featuring poet PDVNCH.   

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