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Washington poetry: Slams, open mikes thrive in the District

By Michael O'Sullivan and Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 5, 2010; WE22

Mention poetry and, let's face it, you're going to put some folks to sleep.

Chalk it up to the stultifying effect of high school English class, says Kyle Dargan, a poet who teaches at American University. "People still think of a poet as some old white guy with a beard in a cabin," he says.

Look around at the local poetry scene, though, and that's far from the case. The recent explosion of upstart spoken-word festivals, reading series and open-mike events lends credence to Dargan's assertion that Washington today, compared with 10 or 20 years ago, has never been more "saturated" with poetry.

So why, in the view of poet Regie Cabico, does the art form still feel so "off the radar"?

It's certainly not for lack of pushing on Cabico's part. The writer -- a prizewinning poet in the competitive poetry slam circuit and an openly gay evangelist for verse who calls himself the "fairy godmother of poetry in D.C." -- is nearly ubiquitous in the scene. Cabico, a Filipino American, has organizational roles in Sulu, a monthly performance series for artists of Asian and Pacific Islander background; the queer-centric reading series Sparkle; and Capturing Fire, an upcoming gay poetry slam and summit. Listen carefully at almost any poetry event and you might well hear Cabico's distinctive laugh rising from the audience or from backstage.

Why is this man laughing? Maybe it's because poetry is no longer the domain of the fuddy-duddy. Sure, it can be angry, profane, self-important at times. But it can also be -- okay, we'll say it -- entertaining. For proof, check out our guide to the best, the newest or simply the edgiest of what the city's bards have to offer. In all likelihood, it's more than you ever knew was out there.

Will it satisfy Cabico? Probably not. "I think there should be spoken-word poetry," he says, "on 'The Tonight Show.' "

To read on about unique poetry events, click the links below or in the This Story box, above.

Festival: Split This Rock

Slam: Capturing Fire

For women: Mothertongue open mike

Revival: Spit Dat open mike

HOME: Open mike at Hillyer Art Space

Variety show: Sulu DC

Where to hear more poetry in D.C.

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