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Poets Duke It Out Chicago Contest

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 1999; Page C1


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Chicago Backstage, the energy is cranked so high, the poets are bouncing off the walls. Literally. A young bard careens about, drunk on adrenaline, his feet pogo-ing against the sides of the stage in a hyper homage to Fred Astaire.

Onstage, Big Poppa E, a frail lad with a pale bald pate and the requisite X-er goatee, steps to the mike, all bluster and bombast as he bellows:

"I AM WUSSY BOY!!!!!!!!!! HEAR ME ROAR!!!!!!"

He pauses for effect.


Egged on by the howling crowd that packs the cavernous Chicago Theater, Big Poppa E rips into his "Wussy Boy Manifesto":

"Sensitive guys kick much (expletive) ... / Bar fight? Pshaw!/ You think you can take me, huh? ... / Don't make me get renaissance/ on your (expletive) because I will write a poem about you ... / bring the pain punk,/ beat the (expletive) out of me ... / but you'd better remember/ my bruises will fade/ my cuts will heal/ my scars will shrink and disappear/ but my poem/ about the pitiful, small, helpless/ (expletive)-man oppressor you really are/ will last forever."

The audience leaps up, clapping hands, snapping fingers and stomping feet. The judges raise their scorecards and ... Big Poppa E, a k a the Wussy Boy, earns a 28.2 out of 30 for the San Francisco team.

Call it the revenge of the Wussy Boys – and Girls. At the 10th Anniversary National Poetry Slam Championship, which began here last Wednesday and concluded sometime early Sunday, folks arm themselves with metaphors, duking it out over couplets and rhyme schemes. Make no mistake about it, these poets "slam" to win. But in slamming, they also find succor. Many of them are, as one poet put it, writing for their lives. Some may be misfits. After all, to be an artist is to be an outsider. But for those three minutes that they're holding your attention hostage, they're the stars of this show.

And so they slam, frequently foulmouthed, funky and furious, some 200 poets from 48 teams plucked out of saloons and coffeehouses around the country and Canada. It's the Olympics of verse – minus, of course, the sappy slo-mo bios of competitors who, in grabbing the gold, overcame all odds, from cancer to communism to coaches who done done them wrong.

"These people are stepping up onstage, pouring out their hearts and souls, telling us what keeps them up at night, where they think we fit in the universe," says Cleveland poet Michael Salinger. "And we're giving them scores."

"It's really stupid to do," Salinger admits. "But we're doing it anyway."

It works something like this: You've got three minutes to get your poem on. The work must be original. Five judges randomly selected from the audience (the only criterion for judging is relative sobriety) rank you on a scale of 0 to 10. The top and bottom scores are dropped, and the remaining three are added together for the total. Score a zero, and you are strongly urged to keep your day job. (Of course, most of the poets here do have day and night jobs, but that's another story.) Score a 10, and well, you're king of the hop.

Performance and poetry share equal billing here. The handful of poets who read, clutching paper in hand, miss the point. In a big way. It's been said that former Boston Globe columnist/Slam champion/drama queen extraordinaire Patricia Smith could recite the Yellow Pages and make you cry. At the slam, you play Emily Dickinson at your peril. Quietly intense poems are lost in the roar of hubris and hype.

"This is an idea that's been around since the Greeks," says Slam founder Marc "Slampapi" Smith, a former construction worker and poet. "Performance poetry is about compelling people to listen to you. Everything I do is about the audience. The poet is a servant to the audience."

These days, for some poets, that audience is growing much larger. A few have launched movie careers out of this orgiastic celebration of the spoken word: Saul Williams, of New York's Nuyorican Cafe, became the darling of the Sundance Film Festival with his starring turn in the indie flick "Slam." Former slammer Mums the Schemer is a regular on HBO's "Oz." Last year's individual champion winner Reggie Gibson's poems – and life – ended up as fodder for "Love Jones," the 1997 film exploring the complicated love lives of African American poets. And wily poet Taylor Mali, who revels in bending slam rules, stars in Paul Devlin's 1998 documentary, "SlamNation."

It's poetry as sport. Audiences dig it. Academics dis it. That's not poetry, they sputter. The slammers' retort: Those who can't slam, teach.

Meanwhile, there are agents to woo. Book deals to be made. CDs to produce. The days of starving in a garret are over.

"I love it when folks make money," says Gayle Danley, a 33-year-old full-time poet from Washington's Maryland suburbs who performs and teaches poetry around the country. "I used to do it for gas money – that was cute. Then I started asking to be paid. I'm a single mom. I've got to make it happen. So that's my middle name: Go Ahead And Ask For What You Deserve."

Of course, this isn't the first time that poets went public, but slamming, scoring poetry like a sporting event, began 14 years ago in Chicago, the brainchild of "Slampapi" Smith, who saw it as an "up yours" to the snooty folks holding effete poetry readings that no one attended.

"I was laughing at all the poets around town," he says, spitting out his words with his flat South Side twang. "Because no one was listening to the poets."

With the slam, folks listened. It soon grew into a national, then an international phenomenon. (The first national slam was held in San Francisco a decade ago.)

But while the slam movement continues to explode, Smith, a recovering alcoholic, tries to keep things on his side contained. He's turned down movie offers, bids for corporate sponsorship of the Slam. For him, a poem is a poem. And a poet is not a celebrity.

At first glance, the Green Mill Jazz Lounge in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, where for the past 14 years Smith has held his Sunday night Uptown Poetry Slam, is an unlikely site for poetry. Outside, the neighborhood drunks pass around Mad Dog while a phalanx of suburban teens, their faces painted black and white, create an eerie tableau as they stalk Broadway en route to an Insane Clown Posse concert across the street.

Inside, every Sunday night, Smith holds court. And every Sunday night, he tells the crowd, "I'm Marc Smith."

Each and every Sunday night, they yell back, "SO WHAT!!!!"

But though he's been a slam fixture, he's stepping down for a while from his post as Slam president for life. It's changing. It's going big time. He's not sure he's still comfortable with it.

It's Round 2, which means it's Night 2, and the nightclub is stuffed to overflowing, poets upon poets threatening to burst the room at its seams.

Chappy, a portly, spectacled poet, is the evening's emcee. He opens the round with a demand: "Can somebody switch off the jukebox?" he asks. "Or else it'll kick on in the middle of some sensitive incest poem."

Of course, the first poem up is ... a sensitive incest poem.

The D.C. team, headed by slammaster Toby Debarr, watch the action as they lounge on a faded velvet love seat.

This is the team's first national slam. Hell yeah, they're nervous.

"We know we're not going to win the finals," De Barr, who owns a security business, says. "But we're not that bad. And you might even find us entertaining."

D.C. team member Karen Finneyfrock, looking demure in a long black tunic and skirt, steps to the mike, hands clasped in supplication.

"Dear God," she begins, "I want a new set of boobs. ... I want boobs that make men say, 'You seem like an interesting person.' ... "

At the Slam, any poem that manages to mention either: a. breasts, b. penises, c. sex or d. the F-word, is a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

Finneyfrock scores a 28.4.

"D.C.!!! D.C!!! D.C!!!" De Barr crows, while team member Sam Hurst leaps to his feet, fist pumping the air.

The D.C. team ends up finishing second that night. Not bad, considering that their strategy was simple: Not to come in last.

"I will not be sleeping tonight," D.C.'s Danley announces. "At this point, it's all about numbers.''

It's late Thursday night, and she's waiting to see if she and her slam buddy, Joel Dias-Porter, aka DJ Renegade, will make it into the semifinals for the individual competition.

Dias-Porter silently calculates.

The irony of obsessing over numbers in a medium that's all about words is not lost on Danley. For her, ultimately, poetry is about the spirit.

"Before I get onstage, it's like someone's grinding a fist in my belly," says Danley, who was national poetry slam champion in 1994 and 1995. "But when I'm onstage, it's peace. Suddenly this force grips me and all I want to do is tell my story to these people I'm falling in love with.

"I want to wrap my poem around their neck like a pretty scarf."

Backstage at the finals Saturday night, poets like DJ Renegade figure scores in their heads, spitting out the results like sportscasters at the Final Four. Still, somehow, the competition thing fades. Earlier that morning, a "family slam" meeting erupted in tears and accusations, with a member of the Cleveland team accusing the Oakland team of unsportsmanlike behavior like heckling.

"This is supposed to be about the words and the salvation of the words," a woman said, her voice choking as her eyes filled with tears. "But there's something about the competition that poisons all of us. We've got to find a way to approach each other with respect."

But now, the Slam is one big lovefest.

Emcee Patricia Smith, who last year was asked to resign as a columnist at the Boston Globe for making up characters and quotes, basks in the glow of her hometown audience.

Y'all should see them backstage," she tells them. "They're chanting, praying, invoking Buddha and I don't know what else back there."

In the individual poet competition, New York's Roger Bonair-Agard wins first place, while Chicago's Reggie Gibson, last year's winner, comes in second, and D.C.'s Danley places third. San Jose and New York's Union Square Team tie for first place with a score of 112.7. Instead of breaking the tie with a "sudden death" poetry shootout, the teams opt to share first place. In a dramatic gesture, they tear the award, a model of a boxing glove perched atop a pile of books, in half. As the band plays on, the stage turns into one mass of writhing, hugging poets.

Perhaps they've all taken to heart the words of New York's Staceyann Chin, who whipped herself – and the audience – into a frenzy with her defiant "Don't Want to Slam":

I've decided
I don't want to be
a poet who just writes for the slam
any more ...

I want to write
I left my lover and
now I want her back poems
I miss Jamaica
but I'm never going back poems
I know it's not a ten
but it sends shivers down MY back poems
poems that talk about life
and love and laughter
poems that reveal the flaws
that make up strikingly real people
real poems
poems that are so honest
they slam

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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