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Kelsey Brunner, Deseret News
Dorothy McGinnis poses for a portrait at the Watchtower Cafe in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 31, 2017. McGinnis is an 19-year-old poet who will be competing in the National Poetry Slam in Colorado for the second year in a row in August.

SALT LAKE CITY — By the time her team arrived at last summer’s National Poetry Slam in Georgia, Dorothy McGinnis already had much to celebrate. First, she'd beaten a number of older, more experienced artists to secure her spot on the team representing Salt Lake City. Then, by helping win designated poetry slams, she and her team ensured they would be eligible to perform at the NPS and compete for a national title.

And the first day of competition was her 18th birthday.

“I felt … very out of my element, out of my league," McGinnis said, adding that she was the youngest person in the competition. "It was shocking and jarring to be among seasoned artists, … (so) to get really positive feedback from people was very shocking.”

And McGinnis, now 19, is headed to the NPS again this year as part of Salt Lake City's first all-female team. She will be in Denver from Aug. 7-12 with the three other women on the Sugar Slam, where they’ll perform their original poetry as a group.

A poet is born

McGinnis was born and raised in Salt Lake City, where an eighth-grade teacher first used YouTube to introduced her to slam poetry — “a type of competition where people read their poems without props, costumes or music,” according to powerpoetry.org.

“And I (thought), ‘This is so tight! This is what I want to do!’” she said. “So I did little baby slam poems about my breakup at the time, and then I just thought of myself as a slam poet but never did anything."

That changed when, as a junior at Skyline High School, a theater teacher, who was also a slam poet, got McGinnis involved with the Salt Lake City slam poetry scene.

Slam poetry competitions are typically held in bouts, where performers receive points for things like delivery and strong writing. In the case of the Sugar Slam — which was founded by poet Willy Palomo as Voiceboxers in 2012 and was renamed Sugar Slam in 2015 — performers have to be one of the four or five highest scorers during the approximately nine-month season to qualify for the Sugar Slam's NPS team, and they must earn their spot on the team each year.

According to Poetry Slam, Inc. (which runs the NPS), slam teams must win two slams at approved venues before they’re eligible to sign up for the NPS. Eighty teams will participate at this year’s NPS, with 20 teams advancing to the semifinals. From there, the best four teams will compete for the national title and a $2,000 cash prize. Including its Voiceboxers years, this will be the Sugar Slam’s fifth time at nationals, and McGinnis’ second year on an NPS team.

“I’m definitely trying to push myself out there more,” she said. “I really want to go into the national scene as a major player from Salt Lake City. … I want to be a feminine voice of Salt Lake City and show what we have coming from a different viewpoint.”

The Sugar Slam team meets twice a week for about two hours at a time, working on writing and delivery, and McGinnis said members are encouraged to test out pieces at slams. They also occasionally practice with the Salt City Slam, Utah’s other slam poetry team that will also be representing Utah at the NPS this year.

Though the Sugar Slam has never made it the semifinals at the NPS, McGinnis said it's still a valuable experience.

“I never have approached it with a prize aspect in mind for nationals,” she said. “I look at nationals as the rendezvous point for poetry. … It’s a place to say, ‘Here’s my art, here’s what I’m creating (and) here’s what my city’s creating. Let’s share, let’s exchange (and) let’s see what other people have to offer.'”

Poetry's purpose

McGinnis’ work tends to center on feminism and mental-health issues, with recurring motifs of flowers and Greek Mythology.

“Honestly, so much of my writing comes back to the importance of femininity and being a woman and being a girl, and trying to sort through mental illness," she said. "And then I think I also draw a lot from the images of the world that inspire me and make me want to be alive. There’s a lot of flowers in my work and there’s a lot of sunsets and a lot of light.”

Those messages are something McGinnis has to convey to herself, first, before she can convey them to others.

“I sit down with a question, and then I try to figure it out by the end of a poem, and if I don’t figure it out, I edit it and I edit it," she said. "So I think … at the end of the day, a lot of why I write is to pick apart the pieces of who I am and put them together and try to figure something out.”

But as soon as she’s performing, it’s about the audience.

“I very much believe that if you are the only person getting a piece of art, and your audience can’t get it, then you’re wasting their time,” she said.

McGinnis also said she usually has a purpose when performing a piece. With her "English Class" poem, which details Zelda Fitzgerald's turbulent marriage with her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, McGinnis said she initially thought she was performing it to honor Zelda, but life experiences have made it more personal.

“I usually try to think who or what (the poem) is for and just draw myself into that place," she said.

McGinnis is an English major at the University of Utah, where she’ll be a sophomore in the fall. Since performing at last year's NPS, she's been published in Voicemail Poems and Rising Phoenix Press. One of her poems in Rising Phoenix press called "Medusa Writes for Teen Vogue" was recently nominated for Sundress Publications' Best of Net awards. Since last September, she's coached Skyline High School's slam poetry team once a week. She hopes to one day write television scripts or be a college professor.

“My dream of all dreams is to have my work studied in a college or high school classroom one day,” she said. “I really want people to sit down and dissect my work.”