Essay: A Public Poesy

Denice Rovira Hazlett

A Public Poesy
Essay by Denice Rovira Hazlett

*Poesy: [poh-uh-see, -zee] noun, plural po•e•sies. The work or the art of poetic composition.

Sometimes you plan a poetry event, but can’t ensure even a modest modicum of success. It helps to be granted a great space, free of charge, to host a beginners’ poetry slam competition, to hand-select the very best panel of guest judges, and contact all of the local schools to tell them how fabulous a poetry competition is. It also helps to track down an artist willing to custom-create incredibly funky and highly unique trophies for your winners, secure sponsors to cover the cost of the trophies, offer cash prizes to the winners, and design some sweet posters. If you convince a team of talented nationally-known poets to demonstrate how it’s done, you could even get coverage in the local media (working in the local media helps with that a bit) and a few radio spots generously sponsored by a local college. Heck, you might even find a charismatic emcee, maybe a beloved local humor columnist, to entertain and guide the crowd through the evening. If there is a crowd. No matter how much fun it might be, how fabulous and rewarding, that’s the part you can’t plan.

It was a mild spring afternoon, a lovely day for the very first Poesies Poetry Slam Competition, and I was both excited and completely terrified. My friend Paul Tish and I had been working tirelessly to pull the whole thing together since early February, and the path to May had simultaneously dragged and flown by. I had high hopes for this crazy competition; I had been wanting to attempt something like this for a long time. A really long time. And while I couldn’t claim to be an award-winning performance poet, I had made an attempt at a slam or two, including an embarrassing episode where I had been clicked off the stage of the Green Mill Lounge in Chicago. Still, I knew poetry had the power to bring into one room people who wouldn’t ordinarily gather together in a quiet, mostly conservative rural town, the power to give people a voice for their feelings, experiences, and convictions. It would be a friendly gathering, a fun few hours, complete with noisemakers and prizes just for participating.

On that temperate Saturday, the fifth of May, 2012, I made my way to Jitters Coffee House on the south end of Millersburg, county seat of Holmes, a sleepy ten-thousand-horse community known for being home to the world’s largest Amish settlement. I wasn’t sure what kind of turnout we’d have, but we had capped the number of entries at 20, giving each competitor no more than three minutes to woo us with original works. Poets traveled an hour or more, from Columbus and Canton, or from a few blocks away, gathering at Jitters, signing in, seating themselves, nervously rifling through pages of poems. By starting time, seventeen competitors, ranging in age from 9 to 77, had filled the place, some preparing to share for the first time ever, others with years of stage experience. One-by-one, they presented original works in front of a full house and a panel of guest judges, hoping to take home a cash prize and one of the fabulously funky recycled-steel awards, custom-created for the event by local artist Jan Bowden of Bowden Bells & Garden Art. While every competitor gave it their all, only three would walk away as the competition’s first ever award-winners.

I had asked friend and Wooster Daily Record humor columnist John Lorson to host for the evening. He rushed in from a day of mountain biking just in time to introduce the panel of judges, which included poet Nathan Moore, Holmes County District Public Library director Bill Martino, poet and teacher Leslie Nielsen of Canton, Ohio and poet and teacher Peggy Gannon of Hartville, Ohio. These folks had the most difficult job–choosing their three favorite presenters, based both on poem content and presentation.

Lorson drew the competitors’ names at random from a bright purple beach bucket for each of the three rounds, preceded by an enthusiastic “drum roll” from the audience, complete with kazoos, whistles and various noisemakers. If presenters went over their three minute limit, out came the noisemakers again to usher the poet off the stage.  A wide range of styles and abilities were represented as each of the three rounds offered poets an opportunity to present new pieces. Audience member Leslie McKelley of Glenmont, Ohio called the event an evening of “three minute glimpses into teen angst, motherhood, love, fear, darkness and light. With noisemakers!”

One of the primary goals, aside from bringing together a variety of poets and personalities, was to keep the evening moving and interesting. During tabulation, special guest poets presented original works, demonstrating performance poetry at its finest. Rose M. Smith, of Columbus, Ohio left the crowd hushed with her impassioned performances, while Rachel Wiley, of Columbus elicited grins, giggles, and knowing nods with her tender and witty pieces.

“With so much talent, judging the poets was not an easy task,” Gannon said. Moore added that “the amount of enthusiasm for poetry and reading poetry in public was truly inspiring.” In the end, the judges chose three talented poets to place. Third prize and $50 was awarded to author Raymond Buckland of Glenmont, Ohio. Second place and $75 went to Scott Goodland of Millersburg, Ohio. And at first place, a gift basket from Bookworms Cafe in Millersburg and $100 went to crowd favorite Kathy Carr of Canton. All competitors were given $5 Bookworms Cafe gift certificates.

The energy continued as competitors, judges, performance poets and audience members all mingled, people who, under most other circumstances would not gather in the same room. But they did, and for a few hours, shared their differences in a respectful, grandly metered or unmetered manner, blew on kazoos, and felt what it’s like to be a part of such a poetic composition.    

Poesies Poetry Slam Competition

Denice Rovira Hazlett writes from Charm, Ohio and has published more than 150 pieces in a variety of publications, won first place in all three categories of the 2011 Wayne College (Ohio) Regional Writing Awards and is currently working on a collection of short stories centered around human beings’ regrets, or lack of them. Visit her online at