When Forensics "Slams" Into Poetry: An Interview With Slam Poet Adam "Henzbo" Henze

Posted on June 03, 2013 by Stephanie Alderdice

In case you missed it, the National Forensic League recently hosted its first online Spoken-Word Poetry Competition. The four winners, Emma Bleker (TX), Jason Fotso (MN), Annika Hansteen Izora (OR), and Erin Phillips (MA) will perform their original poetry as the opening act for Daniel Beaty at the awards ceremony for the 2013 National Tournament. Chosen out of the over eighty submissions, the winners represent just a few of the growing crossover between forensics and slam poetry.

Slam poetry, also known as spoken-word poetry, has had a tremendous impact on forensics. Though the average interper may need to brush up her or his Shakespeare, chances are there is at least one person at any given tournament that can recite at least part of Taylor Mali's "What Teachers Make." As more poets make their literature and performances accessible online, more competitors are finding pieces and voices that speak to their own experience. Moreover, slam poetry offers students who love poetry, performance, and competition an outlet once their forensics eligibility has ended. 

We're chatting with one such alum, Adam "Henzbo" Henze, about his experience in forensics, his new book of slam poetry, and an awesome opportunity for aspiring performance poets to hone their skills.


Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Right now I live in Indianapolis, where I teach on both the high school and college level.  I grew up in Evansville, IN, where I attended F.J. Reitz High.  One day my freshman year I stumbled into the speech office, and my life changed forever.  I went to Western Kentucky University on a speech scholarship, where I was part of their first national championship team in 2003.  After speech I traveled around for a little while, before moving to Indianapolis to pursue a Masters in Education and coach speech at the University of Indianapolis.

What were your favorite events in high school?

I loved all the interp categories in high school: poetry, duo, prose.  But because our school was an NFL school, I mostly focused on dramatic interpretation.  I competed at NFL Nationals 3 times, and in 2001 I was fortunate to place 3rd in D.I. performing a piece called "Jason." It was one of my favorite pieces, because I related to it so much.  The play is about a man with special needs who is applying to live in a cooperative housing unit.  I empathized with the character because my family has a history of advocacy for the differently abled community: my uncle was autistic, and my grandmother was one of the founding members of The Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC).  I enjoyed stepping into the shoes of a character who experiences challenges that are different than what I often go through in my own life.  I guess the script has gotten pretty popular, but when I did it the play was unheard of in the forensics community.

How did you first get involved in spoken word poetry?

I got into spoken word poetry because I really enjoyed the slam artists I explored in my poetry programs.  When my 4 years of eligibility were up in college, I really wanted to keep performing in some capacity.  Slam provided me with a similar catharsis that speech did, and I was surprised to find that other former speechies were popping up in the slam scene as well.  It was a great feeling when I realized there was not an expiration date on my ability to perform and create.

How is competing at poetry slams similar to and different from competing at forensics tournaments?

Slam is really similar to speech: your performance is judged by members of the audience, there are outrounds and breaks for individuals who score high, there are the same networking opportunities and chances to travel, you compete against other communicators from all over the country.  I'd say one of the main differences is in slam you perform your own work.  Also, while in speech we often seek out experienced judges, in slam we really like using judges who are everyday individuals--who've never seen a slam before.  Finally, the biggest change for me: in speech you perform for like 12 hours a day over the course of a weekend.  Slam you really only perform a couple minutes each night.  It was like going from a marathon to a sprint.  You have 3 minutes, and you have to put your all into them.

Where do you find inspiration for your poetry?

I get inspired to write poetry when I feel powerless.  Maybe my boss was picking on me and I had to bite my tongue, or maybe I witnessed someone being treated unfairly and felt helpless to act.  Writing empowers me to use my voice in a different way, and often I feel more capable after putting my emotions into words.

What are some of the central themes/messages in your book, Written In the Dish Pit?

I think speech kids will really like my new book of poetry because of the recurring themes.  It's called 'Written in the Dish Pit,' and is comprised of my first 10 years of work.  I wrote a lot of poems about waiting tables in my 20's, I have a lot of poems about my family and my personal relationships, and a lot of the book is about my travels on the road.  There are definitely a few cuttings in there for speechies looking for new lit.  I've seen my poetry pop up on the forensics circuit a few times, but this is the first time I have a book out with an ISBN number.  Some students from states with different rules could use poetry from my previously released CD's, but now everyone can use my poetry if it resonates with them. The book is available at Amazon.

You're hosting a camp for aspiring slam poets. What would attendees look forward to at the camp?

I am really happy to be hosting the second year of our summer camp, an academic intensive focused entirely on teaching the writing and performance mechanics of poetry slam.  The camp is called "The Gustavus Adolphus College Institute of Spoken Word and Poetry Slam."  In addition to writing and performance, we also expose students to dozens and dozens of quality poems and artists--which is great for speech geeks looking for good lit. We also teach students how to publish their own work, how to book tours and network, and how to strategize in competitive slams.  The camp hopes to take a writer of any skill and turn them into a word warrior by the end of the week.  Another appeal to our camp is that we accept graduating high school seniors.  So many former speechies find themselves left out the summer between high school and undergrad because they can't apply to most speech camps, and we encourage those home-for-the-summer students to take advantage of our camp.  I am really happy with our partnership with Gustavus Adolphus College: the facilities are wonderful, the dorms are big, the cafeteria is great, and the faculty really goes the extra mile to give students a memorable experience.  Kris Kracht, the Director of Academic Camps at Gustavus, offered the following words:

Gustavus is honored to be associated with some of the most successful slam poetry artists in the past decade, and our institute provides aspiring poets an opportunity to learn and hone their skills in an academic environment.  We have students registered from 13 different states, which speaks to the growing popularity of slam poetry and this institute.



If someone is interested in attending the camp, where can they apply and when do they need to submit their application?

The camp is an annual summer institute, and takes place the last week of June. The deadline for registration is coming up quick on June 8th.  Interested students can learn more and register at https://gustavus.edu/camps/slamcamp/.  Both the students and staff had a life-changing experience last year, and we expect no different for 2013.

What piece of writing advice would you give to aspiring poets?

The best writing advice I can give is read, read, read.  Introduce yourself to new writers, diverse writers, writers of different styles and time periods.  The more poetry you read the more tools you will have to help you develop your own voice.

What advice would you give someone about to perform in a competition -- be it slam poetry, forensics, or both?

My first World Poetry Slam, I was so nervous.  There were poets walking around with HBO jackets, who had books published and had appeared on MTV and BET.  I felt like I was going to be sick the room was spinning so much.  A big-named poet named Corbet Dean walked up to me and said, "You are the only one that can tell your story.  The are other artists here who have stories to tell, but none of them are yours."  That was really special to me.  It reminded me that I am unique and that my voice is important.  I think all performers need to realize that they are worthy.

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