The crowd was decked out in cute fits. Everyone was yelling. A collective wave of emotion moved through the spectators. You could feel the energy in the air. This was the scene both at a New Mexico United soccer game I attended recently and at a poetry slam I went to in June.
Cheering, scorekeeping, colorful outfits, community pride, beer—there’s a surprisingly large overlap in what makes a soccer game fun and what makes a poetry slam fun. The biggest difference is of course, that at one there’s poetry and at the other there’s soccer.
I recently attended my first professional soccer game. I’m still not sure if it was a good idea, but it was an amazing time. It was an outdoor event and I am fully vaccinated for COVID, but there were a lot of people at this soccer game. More than I expected to be honest. I have done some event coverage during the pandemic, so I have been in large crowds over the last year. I have also gone to a few poetry events since moving back to New Mexico, but this was the largest group of people I’ve seen in a long time. After more than a year of COVID precautions, it was disorienting to be in such a large crowd.
It was also thrilling.
It’s hard to know how COVID cautious to be at this moment. The state has reopened. Fully vaccinated people have good protection against serious illness or death from COVID-19 and a reduced risk of spreading the disease. In theory that means once fully vaccinated, it’s safe to start doing a lot of things we weren’t supposed to be doing before getting vaccinated, like going to sporting events.
Still, it’s hard to shake the guilty sense that I’m doing something wrong every time I voluntarily go somewhere with more than 20 people. The Delta variant is alarming, people under 12 are all unvaccinated and I’m watching cases rise nationally and health recommendations change in Mississippi, where vaccination rates are much lower. Also, I’ve spent the last year obsessively checking case counts and talking to folks about the devastation COVID has caused. Is it time yet to relax precautions and do something like go to a soccer game? I don’t know.
My guilty conscience and confusion aside, I went to this soccer game and it was amazing. I was shocked by how much I enjoyed it. I’m not a sportsperson. Sports are fine, but I’ve always been more interested in getting a hot dog at the baseball game than what the players are up to, I think I’ve only watched two Super Bowls in my entire life and most of the soccer games I’ve attended were the kind where they serve juice boxes at half time.
After the United game, I feel a little like I’ve just been converted. Soccer is easy to follow. Like I fully understand what the point is: get the ball into the goal. It’s a thrill to watch the players maneuver around each other, and holy cow does everyone on the field have really good cardio. I loved watching the goalies kick the ball high into the air and then watching the soccer ball arc gracefully halfway across the field. I got caught up in the excitement as everyone around me chanted “Bruce” every time midfielder Daniel Bruce had the ball.
It turns out poetry slams and soccer games are alike in the best ways. Someone keeps time. Someone keeps score. People who have practiced very hard and trained for this moment get in front of a boisterous crowd. Of course, I already knew that their competitive nature means poetry slams have a lot of overlap with sports.
I think what surprised me was the thing a soccer game has in common with a poetry slam: it is a way to gather with your community and pour out a great deal of emotion, which afterward leaves you more tightly bound together than you were before.
Poems deal explicitly with emotions. A poem can clarify and articulate and unspool, but ultimately the winning poem at the slam is not necessarily the poem with the most over-the-top wordplay or the most original metaphor. It is usually the poem that best reaches the judges’ at a gut level, the poem that made everyone in the room hold their breath or cry out.
What’s news to me, the non-sports person, is how deeply a crowd can be moved and connected by a soccer game. I’m sure all the sports fans are going, duh, and I know I’ve seen crowds connect on a gut level with an ongoing game before. Only, this is the first time I felt so much a part of it.