But then came a new wave of stress: I knew that I’d have to do even better at the next slam because the expectations would obviously be high. I also had to work against a rumor that had been going around that the only reason I’d won was because August is Women’s Month in South Africa, so the judges had felt obliged to give the title to a woman for once. I tried not to let any of that get to me and focused instead on writing something amazing and new. I was a crazy perfectionist at that point and had developed a bad habit of throwing away any writing that I didn’t like, so I didn’t have a lot to work with.

As September approached, I found I couldn’t write. I had just been broken up with by my boyfriend, a man who meant the world to me. He just up and disappeared out of the blue, and I was left wondering what had happened. I felt like a loser, not smart or pretty or womanly enough to hold on to him or to anyone. He was the person I most wanted to impress with my newfound talent, and he wouldn’t be around to experience it with me. He hadn’t been at the first slam, but I had been excited to tell him about it. Looking back, he hadn’t seemed that excited.

All of these bad feelings kept swirling around in my brain until they turned into one big ball of self-loathing and rage. There! That’s what I needed to motivate me. I was angry at my ex, and angry at the people who said a woman couldn’t win Word N Sound, and I channeled all of that anger into a new poem, “A Love Supreme: A Lesson in Poetry Women and Jazz Men,” inspired in part by John Coltrane. I now saw the next slam as a corny battle of the sexes in which I was obligated to represent all women in poetry by slamming audaciously.

I invited my friends Vusi, Katleho, Monti, and Thando to the September slam, because I needed people who loved and supported me in the audience just to steady me. Before the show started, people kept coming up to me to say they enjoyed my poetry and to wish me luck. I had to perform last, and the butterflies were going crazy in my belly—and they only went crazier when I noticed a beautiful woman with a shaved head looking at me, and realized that OH MY GOD IT WAS LEBO MASHILE and SHE WAS LOOKING RIGHT AT ME!

“Are you Nova?” she asked. I was completely starstruck; all I could manage was a smile and a “yes.” She smiled back and said she didn’t want to mess with my headspace before I went on and walked away. I was left standing there like: Oh my god, Lebo Mashile knows who I am, Lebo Mashile does not want to mess with my headspace, Lebo Mashile KNOWS who I am. Oh my goodness!

I went up and told my story, which repeated the phrase “these jazz men.” By the fourth or fifth one the audience had caught on and were saying it with me: jazzzzz men. It felt so, so special.

I won that slam, too, and I was happy—until I got home. Once I was all alone I was overcome with dread. Winning didn’t feel good anymore—it just meant I would have to go through this whole process again next month to defend my title. All the stress, all the work, and even more pressure than ever. I had taken something I loved doing because it gave me a way to express myself while also giving the audience something to relate to, something that earned me positive feedback and made me feel good, and turned it into something akin to long-distance running, where you have to push through the discomfort and pain to get to the reward. I cried myself to sleep that night.

In the morning I had a good long think. Did I want to quit competing in poetry slams? I had to admit that I enjoyed the attention people were paying to my work, and I loved being a woman kicking ass in a male-dominated space. But every time someone said, “She’s a girl, can she really win again?” I felt myself crumbling under the pressure to keep winning. I wanted to stop, but I didn’t want to stop, and each option made me feel disappointed in myself in a different way.

The worst part was that my writing suffered. I had lost the ability to write authentically. I kept combing through my writing for punch lines and clever phrases that would win the favor of the judges and the audience, instead of writing just to express myself, or to make something beautiful.

“Remember how much I loved poetry at school? She gets it from me,” I’d hear my mom telling my grandfather over the phone during their Sunday conversations. Thinking about her pride in me was enough to get me to grit my teeth and continue.

The next competition was in November. It was the grand slam, the final contest of the year. While checking the Facebook event page, I had learned that people had bet money on who was going to win: me or Masai.

The day of the slam, I felt very uneasy. I’d stayed up late rehearsing, put way too much caffeine into my body, and accidentally shocked myself on an electrical cord. I felt dizzy. On my way to the event, I had to stop in a bathroom to cry my eyes out. I really didn’t want to go, but people were in the audience who had paid money to support me, and I felt super guilty that I was even contemplating disappointing them.

When I got onstage, I took my shades off and I could see that people were shocked by the state I was in. My face was pale and my eyes were red. I just looked a mess. I didn’t feel comfortable enough with my new material to perform it by heart, so I read it from paper. I knew this would count against me. I don’t remember hearing any clapping when I finished, and when I got offstage I could tell from people’s expressions that my performance had been an epic disaster.

The fall from the top was a long, hard drop, and it left me shaken. I had disappointed myself, my supporters, and what at the time felt like all of the women in the local poetry scene. I stopped performing for a couple of months in an attempt to rekindle my passion for spoken word.

I returned to the stage the following February and won another slam. I suppose I needed the third time to be the charm, because I couldn’t quite stomach it after that. It felt awesome at first, but I was tired of having to prove myself over and over again. I don’t think I’m really cut out for this poetry-competition thing. I don’t regret any of it, though. Competing in poetry slams showed me what I am capable of. And although competition is hard, the pressure has a polishing effect on your work. It keeps you working hard, because you never want to be mediocre.

Today I prefer performing in noncompetitive spaces, where the point is to share good work and not put my ego on the line. I have been called upon to judge a few slams and to host some noncompetitive events as well. Overall, I now feel good and in control. But even in the noncompetitive venues, I can feel myself wanting to be the audience’s favorite. I still want to get the loudest applause, to give the crowd something unforgettable. I don’t know what to do with this feeling. Maybe I’ll get back up there someday. ♦