Salt City Poetry in Oz: An Interview with Chris Atkin

Chris Atkin, an English teacher at American Fork High School, led the Salt City Unified Slam Team to a fourth-place victory at the National Poetry Slam this summer in Chicago. It was a landmark event, as Salt Lake had never made it to a finals stage, and only once reached semi-finals before. But not only that, on finals stage and semi-finals, the team did a “concept bout” around the Wizard of Oz. Concept bouts are a relatively unusual and obscure technique in poetry slam, wherein a team does four poems on an interconnecting topic. The following is an interview with Atkin about the team’s success, his experience, and his take on poetry.

 

This was your first NPS, and you coached a team to finals stage. What was that like?

Intimidating. It was my first NPS, which means I’ve never competed on that level, let alone coached on it. All of the poets I worked with are people I have looked up to and respected as artists for a long time. It was surreal to even work with them, let alone to go all the way to finals with them. That being said, the finals stage felt like an inevitability for this specific team from the first day of practice. They might not that admit that, but I will.

What do you think about Salt Lake City's team brought them to success (other than having a great coach) and what about Salt Lake City's poetry community made a winning team?

This team loves and trusts each other, both with their art and with their lives. As a team, we were able to break down personal barriers and share some work that I think would’ve have fallen flat without the commitment to vulnerability and sincerity that this team was able to achieve through love and appreciation of one another. 

Another strength of the team, which I think is also a strength of the local poetry community, is our diversity. Poetry, especially slam, seems to typically attract the same kind of people with the same views and insights. Every scene is different from the next, but the people within are usually pretty homogenous. Salt Lake has such a wide range of performers and styles. We have ground breaking performers like Jesse Parent who has a unique talent for character work and choreography and Dorothy McGinnis (here’s looking at you kid) who can embody characters in big and powerful ways, but who can also convey so much with subtlety and poise. We have power house writers like Tanesha Nicole Tyler and RJ Walker who are each breaking the boundaries of poetry in their own unique ways. Then there is José Soto who writes some of the most beautiful and nuanced pieces I’ve ever heard. Every one of them is a champion in their own right, and each has a unique strength to bring to the table, and that’s a huge reflection of our scene.

seen above, the team in Chicago. From left to right clockwise: RJ Walker, TaneshaNicole Tyler, Jose Soto, Chris Atkin, Jesse Parent, Dorothy McGinnis

What moments or experience defined the National Poetry Slam for you?

A lot of the best moments didn’t take place on stage. I think for me, the best moment was right after our first win. We made our way to a random falafel shop, ate gyros, and just enjoyed each other’s company. We talked, we laughed, we played games, we got free stuff from the restaurant manager and made a bunch of people stare at us like we were crazy. Like yeah, it was good that we won, but I feel like that moment would’ve been exactly the same if we had lost too.

Another great moment was listening to a crowd react to our Oz bout for the first time at semi finals. The venue was more intimate than finals, and seeing so many people go nuts for something we worked so hard on collectively, that was so out of the box and different and unapologetically us was amazing.Seen above: the team embracing Jesse Parent after an emotional performance. From left to right clocwise: Dorothy McGinnis, RJ Walker, TaneshaNicole Tyler, Jose Soto, Jesse Parent.

You also successfully coached the American Fork High School team to a state championship. What do you think is the key to a successful team?

Humility, teamwork, and a dedication to our art and each other, in that order. Poets can be so arrogant, but I firmly believe what separates a good poem from a great poem is the number of people involved in its creation. Being able to take criticism and adjust without letting your ego get in the way is an incredible asset for any writer. Having a team that can see your vision and work with you to help you get there helps take advantage of that ability to stay humble, and being dedicated enough to put in the time and work it takes to get those results is necessary to achieve your goals.

As a high school teacher, do you have a personal ethos and belief around teaching the arts and why it matters? 

Every student has a right to be seen, heard, and appreciated for who and what they are. The arts are the absolute best way to give any student that opportunity. Art saves lives, because it gives students a voice when the rest of the world makes them feel utterly voiceless. So yeah, art matters, because the people who make it matter.

Above: Chris Atkin performing at Salt City Finals Stage 2018. 

Why is poetry, and especially spoken word poetry, important in 2018?

For the reason I stated above. Students aren’t the only ones who want and need to be seen. Everyone needs that in their life. Especially groups that are most often told to sit down, shut up, and get on with their lives. Spoken word is for those who need a voice most. It is a tool for resisting the powers at be, for healing, for finding yourself, and so much more.

What poems would you recommend to someone interested in poetry but unsure where to start?

I’m not just saying this because I love the man, but Jesse Parent’s “To the Boys Who May One Day Date My Daughter” has been my go-to intro to slam for a long time. Jesse, both as a person and as an artist, shatters many of the stereotypes students associate with poetry, and when they see him perform many of them light up and think “Yeah, maybe this could be for me too.” 

I also love Mike Mcgee’s “Microphones,” Olivia Gatwood’s “Ode to the Women on Long Island” and anything by Sarah Kay, but forget where I say to start. Hit YouTube, find a slam poem, and follow the rabbit hole. Write down what resonates with you, and forget what I have to say.

 

Photocred for image 1 and 2: Lee Chapman Photography and third image credit of Julia  Parent.