Assigned Judge at Auckland Pride Slam? A Rookie’s Review

When I was told I would be attending the ‘queer poetry’ version of Celebrity Treasure Island on a humid Auckland afternoon I thought to myself, “what an introduction!” I had never been to a poetry slam before, nor watched Celebrity Treasure Island. What was I in for with the Auckland Pride Slam? 

By the end; I had laughed, I had cried, I had found myself welcomed into a little queer cult. Sounds like a successful introduction to me. 

Hosted by JAFA Poetry’s Jessie Fenton in a homemade dress made entirely of rainbows; the event was held in a cosy theatre somewhere tucked away in Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. 

Jessie was the perfect hype-human to bring the crowd along for the ride—including my amateur ass—and she cheerily lead us through what was an emotionally exhilarating couple of hours.

Although the Pride Slam was the first poetry event I’d been to, it was my fourth Pride event within 24 hours. I had been comedying-marching-partying-poetrying up a storm. I strolled in, feeling comfortable in knowing I was amongst my people. And it unequivocally lived up to my unreasonably high ‘Pride Month’ expectations. But there was just one spanner in the works: I was asked to judge the slam. 

On the way in through the doors, someone (whose poetry later made me bawl my eyes out in tragic, queer bliss) asked if my partner or I knew any of the poets performing today. When we admitted we didn’t, we were handed a whiteboard and a pen. No poetry experience, and just like that, I was a judge. Sorry—what the fuck?

After informing the bubbling audience that “tonight, we would be running on poet time . . . so give us another five or ten,” Jessie explained that the Pride Slam deserves evening-level hype – so she would (and we should) refer to the 1 pm event as the ‘night’.

She then introduced which acts we were going to hear from and explained that five random audience members would be scoring poets’ performances. And, of course, it was not just bragging rights at stake. Each brave slammer was performing on behalf of a charity, and the highest score at the end of the night would be awarded the prize money.

Terrible decision on their behalf, I thought to myself. How dare I sit there and digest my first-ever poetry slam while also randomly giving someone a nine-point-two out of ten based on my immediate and completely unqualified opinion? 

Regardless of my imposture syndrome-induced fretting, the show had to go on; two warm-up acts and eight competing poets (who took the stage twice each); delivered a total of 18 performances to the energetic and vocal audience. 

I eventually got the hang of poetry culture’s signature clicking applause, and interactive ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ each time we heard a particular zinger.

After each performance of queer soul, queer heartbreak, queer trauma and plenty of queer zing; four other whiteboard-wielders and I sheepishly offered up a number between one and ten. 

Trying not to panic as I ‘scored’, I decided a fair measure was to see just how much each poem made me cry. Simple, but usually quantifiable. 

In order to rally the crowd some more, our host instructed the audience to provide the judges feedback on their scores in the form of boos and cheers. This achieved its desired purpose tenfold—after one judge in the back row scored somebody a (startlingly reasonable) eight out of ten—the rowdy audience wouldn’t accept anything lower than a full ten out of ten. 

Jessie warned us amateurs against ‘score creep’—where judges get more generous as the night goes on. But who was I to withhold my tens from these queer’roes?

In the end, the overall highest-voted poets Shania Pablo and Ngaio Simm shared first prize. Their charities Rainbow Path and OutLine received $825 each. Following right on their heels was Marcus Mackenzie, who took home third place and $500 for the Burnett Foundation. 

Of course, the winners of the day were those three charities—and the incredible queer and takatāpui communities that they support. And after scoring tickets to such a beautiful queer event I also felt like a bit of a winner. JAFA Poetry—I’ll be back. And I’ll be sure to check out Celebrity Treasure Island first.

Featured image courtesy of Auckland Pride Festival.


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