The Road to National Poetry Slam Champ


As we approach the NZ National Poetry Slam this Saturday, 25th November, Mary Mosteller asks a few of the competing poets questions about their experience with spoken word. If you are interested in attending any of the events this weekend for the slam, you can find tickets here.

Ngaio Simmons (Ngāti Porou), representing Auckland

For someone who doesn’t understand slam, how would you explain it?

It’s the form of poetry that requires performance. There are so many forms of poetry but this is the one where the poems are meant to be performed. A slam is a competition where we go and compete against each other with these poems and we’re judged by audience members. It’s a very specific kind of thing and there really is nothing like it in the literary world, I think. 

How long have you been competing in slams? What’s your favourite part about it?

I’ve been performing and competing in slams for fifteen years now. My favourite part about it is that slam is a medium that has endless possibilities in terms of writing and the ways you can present that writing. I am always learning new things about my style and myself from this, even a decade plus in. 

What topics or themes do your poems typically centre on?

I tend to write a lot about being Māori and finding my place within Te Ao Māori as someone born and raised away from Aotearoa. I also write a lot about identity in general; a lot of my pieces are essentially me piecing together parts of myself in front of an audience. 

What makes slam in Aotearoa unique? 

There are so many voices and stories from Te Moana nui a Kiwa that are right here in Aotearoa. Many of us whose bloodlines start in this ocean call this place home; like so many people of Oceania write and perform poetry here. I can really feel the ocean in the room here.

What’s your favourite line you’ve ever written?

“To love me is a slow death”


Tineke Büser, representing Hamilton

How were you introduced to spoken word? 

I’ve always loved public speaking. From primary to college, I participated in every speech competition that came my way. Despite my love of performance, I was only recently introduced to the slam poetry world because of a poetry paper I chose to take as part of my creative writing minor. Thanks to Waikato University, I’ve been able to explore my talents in a new form and create some pieces that I am really proud of! 

For nationals, you’re performing three poems. Do you have a favourite?

My favourite poem that I’ve written during this short (and exciting!) exploration of poetry is my poem ‘of 15’. Encompassing my own past experiences as a teenage girl, this piece was extremely therapeutic to write and helped me to process some of the feelings I have pent up over the years. 

What are you most excited about for the nationals? 

Being ‘fresh off the boat’ in regards to the slam poetry universe, the thing that I am most excited about is hearing other people’s work and gaining a wider connection with other talented Aotearoa poets. No matter what I place, I believe that this competition will be a fantastic learning curve for me, and can only help to improve my craft in the future. 

What topics or themes do your poems typically centre on?

While my poetry covers a large variety of topics, the two themes that reoccur the most are the comedic, and the darker, more heartfelt, true stories. As much as I love to make people laugh, I also think that my writing is my voice, and it can be used as a tool to empower and aid those who have been in similar life circumstances to mine. 

What do you bring to slam that is different from other poets? 

In my opinion, my biggest strength is probably my ‘freshness’ to the scene. Being a public speaker more than a poet, I believe that I will be able to deliver a more ‘performative’ side to the slam coin.


Maxie Rodil, representing Auckland

For someone who doesn’t understand slam, how would you explain it?

Spoken word poetry, to me, is poetry that is too emotional to stay on a page. It’s like how in musicals, the dialogue will get so intense people will start singing; In poetry, the verses you write can get so intense that it must be read. It must be performed.

How were you introduced to spoken word and what made you want to get into it?

I think when I was like 13 I used to watch random TED Talks for no reason. YouTube randomly recommended one that was about spoken word and poetry and I was hooked immediately. It helps that this was also around the time when me and my friends wrote fanfiction and I sucked at prose; poetry just came to me easier.

What topics or themes do your poems typically centre on?

My poems vary a lot. I think for right now though, a lot of my writing has been revolving around what it means to exist and take up space. Like I have a small series of poems I post to Instagram called ‘passersby poems’ and it’s all about people I’ve come across in my day-to-day. Everyone has a story to tell, and it turns out so many people are bad at hiding it from onlookers.

For nationals, you’re performing three poems. Do you have a favourite? 

One of the poems I’m reading, if I get to do all three, is dedicated to a friend of mine who sadly passed away a couple years ago. His death anniversary is the same day as the slam, so it would be simply insane if I didn’t perform the one I wrote for him.

What’s your favourite line you’ve ever written?

“I learned what it is to have no God:
I mean–‘alone’, sure. And ‘small’ yes–
But, completely and absolutely
Forgiven.”


Marcus Mackenzie, representing Auckland

How were you introduced to spoken word and what about it made you want to get into it?
The first spoken word poem I ever saw was an animated video that went viral in 2012 of the poem ‘To This Day’ by Shane Koyczan. I loved how accessible and easy to understand it was—as a closeted 12-year-old it seemed a great outlet. I’d always been a writer, but that was when I started writing poetry.

What have you been doing to prep for nationals? Do you have a strategy?
I have been going through COVID this week, so not much prepping has occurred! Strategy always plays into it, but poetry is so subjective and anything can happen on the night of a slam, so I’m planning on just coming and reading the poems that my heart is feeling.

Tell me about the slam community where you live. What makes it special compared to other cities in Aotearoa?
Auckland slam is heated. There are so many unbelievably talented spoken word poets in Tāmaki Makaurau. It’s amazing as an audience member, cause you get to see so many incredible poets, but also as a poet myself—I know I have to lift my game every single time. I think having numerous poetry events in Auckland every month (JAFA, SUP, Poetry Live, etc.) helps to foster an energised and well-practised community in a way I don’t know that you’d see elsewhere.

For nationals, you’re performing three poems. Do you have a favourite? Why?
There’s this idea in the Bible that when a person gets to Heaven, God gives them a new ‘perfect’ body. My favourite poem from my nationals set is one that plays with that idea from a trans perspective—requesting that with this ‘new body’ I am given both reflects who I am yet does not erase the journey to getting here by still having top surgery scars etc. The idea that a ‘perfect body’ would include my transness is really affirming, and this piece just feels great to perform at the moment.

What’s your favourite line you’ve ever written?
“the resurrected Jesus kept remnants of his wounds / let me keep mine
these scars are holy / this body is holy”


Zia Ravenscroft, representing Wellington

How were you introduced to spoken word and what about it made you want to get into it? 

When I moved to Wellington I began looking for places to perform all the poetry I’d written, and discovered the local slam poetry and open mic scene here. I mainly have a theatre and performing background, so spoken word combines my two biggest passions of being onstage and creative writing in one go, and I love being able to share my poetry and bring it to life by reading it myself. 

What topics or themes do your poems typically centre on?

My poems are generally about my own experiences—I’ve been through a hell of a lot in my life and find writing, particularly poetry, to be a really powerful tool for healing and processing emotions. I write a lot about my relationship to my body, sexuality, and identity as a transgender person, as well as growing up in a rural environment and a continual search for how queerness fits into a sense of the New Zealand gothic as part of this. I say all this but actually, all I’ve written recently is love poetry! Typical poet behaviour. 

What’s your favourite line you’ve ever written?

It’s from a poem ‘pink triangle/yellow star’ written for Overcom: Celebrate, and it goes “god loved me so much he made me twice and gave me a choice.” It feels like my own personal little manifesto speaking to my agency and power in my transition, and the knowledge that for me, being queer is as easy and as natural as breathing. I keep breathing. I keep being queer. I keep writing about it. I keep choosing this, because I need it in my life.

Tell me about the slam community where you live: What makes it special compared to other cities in Aotearoa? 

I’m from a small rural town and moving to Wellington was so incredible as it meant I could really immerse myself in an arts scene and surround myself with my queer community all of the time, which I never had growing up. Wellington is absolutely the pulsing heart of the arts in New Zealand, and the poetry scene here especially is very queer, young, and indigenous, which feels really special and important to be a part of in the slightest way. These are the voices we need to hear from. 

Is there another poet competing in the slam that you really admire?

My fellow representatives from Wellington, Matariki and Teirangi. They both absolutely blew me away at our regional competition with the strength, truth, and clarity present in their poetry. It was a true honour to share a stage with them and I can’t wait to do it again!


Briana Olive, representing Christchurch

How long have you been competing in slams? What’s your favourite part about it?

This is my first year! I saw the Ōtautahi Poetry Slam Finals last year and was even an audience judge, and so when it came ‘round this year, I threw my hat in the ring. My favourite part is the community, everyone sharing and growing and supporting and loving each other. It’s a competition, so there’s that element, but everyone revels so much in the success of others which is beautiful. 

What topics or themes do your poems typically centre on?

My poems are almost always about my life and are a reflection of how I’m learning to see the world and my relationships. Like so many poets, I use poetry to process the nuances of being alive, how I feel about it, when I have emotions that seem to contradict each other. So, there’s a lot of queer stuff, several poems about my wife, but also fun stuff. I’m working on one right now about the feeling of needing to poo at an inconvenient time. 

What have you been doing to prep for nationals? Do you have a strategy?

My strategy is to get with my wife and our friends and perform any poem I’m thinking about for them and then we draw up several scenarios like I’m Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Well if the poems are all this kind, then you could do this one, and if you do this one first, then this one could be a good follow-up. It’s fun to see how other people view my poetry and interact with the lines. 

What are you most excited about for nationals?

I’m most excited just to be part of it and share the stage with so many other incredible minds. Lee, who is the other poet representing Ōtautahi, is amazing. I took second to her, and am honoured to have done so. I am so excited to be part of this event, celebrating words and poetry, and showcasing people who are giving words to articulate what it’s like to be alive today.

If someone were considering getting into slam, what would you tell them?

There are no rules to slam poetry or poetry in general. Don’t let fear stop you from writing and performing. Don’t let anyone gatekeep slam poetry. Slam poetry belongs to whoever wants to be part of it. You don’t have to win, perform, or share to call yourself a poet. You don’t have to write every day, every week, every month to call yourself a poet. There are no rules, just get amongst it.


Featured image courtesy of New Zealand National Poetry Slam.


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