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Diverse voices in Poetry Slam

Julia Oxenreider, runner-up by one point in the Poetry Slam, belts out an impassioned performance in the second round. Laurie Swenson | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — From college students to senior citizens, Tuesday night’s Poetry Slam was an eclectic experience for the 75 people who filled the basement of the Keg ‘N’ Cork.

The Poetry Slam, sponsored by the Bemidji Public Library, brought to the stage 14 contestants, most of whom had never competed in a poetry slam before.

Susan Hauser, the winner of the Poetry Slam, performs her poem in the first round. Laurie Swenson | Bemidji Pioneer

Becky Chakov, 87, had never even attended one, but writes a lot of poetry. She started out with a sentimental poem, titled “Medallion,” about a quilt she made for her grandson that was worn to shreds but still beloved years later. When she was picked for the seven finalists, she murmured, “Oh, dear.” Chakov made it to the final round of four and ended up in third place, just ahead of Stephanie Serres.

Becky Chakov

The top two poets were separated by a single point, as Susan Hauser edged Julia Oxenreider in the final round.

The four winners were distinctly different. Hauser, who holds a Master of Fine Arts in poetry, and Chakov read their poems with serenity, warmth and quiet passion, while the younger Oxenreider and Serres delivered gritty, defiant, electric performances to a crowd as diverse as the poets.

“I’m just thrilled so many people write to express themselves,” Hauser said. ‘I just think that’s wonderful that they came here and read.”

Local poet Marsh Muirhead, who ran the event with Bemidji Public Library Branch Manager Paul Ericsson, said the night had a good blend of experience and youth. He added that some of the younger poets were “kind of shy” when they came in, asking, ‘Can we use four-letter words?’

“Why not?” Muirhead said. “It’s a free country.”

 “It’s a great night for poetry,” Muirhead said before announcing the four winners, who won $75 for first, $50 for second and $25 for third, as well as a $10 prize for fourth, added because of a tie in the second round.

Stephanie Serres

The poets each had three minutes to perform a poem, which had to be original. Judging was based half on the poem and half on performance.

Judges, picked from the audience, were Al Belleveau, Mike Forbes, Eric Kvale, Abe Hunter and Will Weaver.

“I’m just a lover of poetry,” Hunter said. “I’m a musician and I’m always judging,” he joked.

 “Remember, this isn’t necessarily fair, but it’s fun,” Muirhead repeated several times during the night.

Gwenfrewi Burger entertained on cello before the poets took the stage and during breaks.

This is the second Poetry Slam sponsored by the library, which held the first during the Bemidji Library Book Festival.

“It was so well-received that night, we felt we really needed to hold it again,” Ericsson said.

The next Poetry Slam will be held Feb. 5 at Headwaters School of Music and the Arts. Poets can sign up in January.  Slams will also be held in April and June.

Laurie Swenson
Laurie Swenson is a reporter/copy editor for the Bemidji Pioneer. She has been with the Pioneer since 2004.