ST. PAUL, Minn. — When you hear the phrase "poetry reading," does your mind’s eye envision a dusty room in a library; three rows of folding chairs, less than half of which are occupied; and a gray-bearded man reading Whitman knockoffs in a monotone voice? Stop nodding off, buy yourself a drink, and welcome to Saint Paul, Minnesota, host city of the 2010 National Poetry Slam.
Each year, over four hundred of the world’s best performance poets converge on a city to compete in the National Poetry Slam. Eighty teams of four to five poets each bring their best pieces and dramatically deliver them in bars, theaters, and auditoriums filled with cheeringâ€”and sometimes buzzedâ€”crowds.
This year, Saint Paul won the honor of hosting the National Poetry Slam through an Olympics-style bidding process. Matthew Rucker, host city coordinator and slam master of the reigning national champion Saint Paul Soap Boxing team, explains that his vision for the event was to have "a huge and happy audience. The poets come to share. Without an audience, poets might as well have stayed home and read poetry to an empty room." Rucker raised enough money to have a public relations budget larger than the entire cost of last year’s event. He also explains that he chose the venues based on proximity; all of them are conveniently within six blocks of each other.
In the final night of preliminaries, 14 bouts are taking place at these venues. At the History Theatre, the Lizard Lounge slam team from Cambridge, anxiously waits for their bout to begin. Having garnered a first-place ranking in their initial preliminary bout against three other teams, another win tonight will guarantee them a spot in the semifinals, as well as the prestigious distinction of being ranked one of the top twenty slam teams in the nation. However, as one of the first-place teams with the lowest total number of points, anything less than first place tonight will likely cause them to be eliminated.
Thick black curtains are draped behind History Theatre’s stage, which is empty except for five microphones, standing in military formation like a challenge to the poets. Who will make us sing, make us scream, use us to enrapture and enmesh the audience? They seem to be asking. Though the onlookers seated in the stadium seats chatter amongst themselves as they wait, all is quiet on the stage.
The emcee breaks the silence by announcing that the bout will soon begin. She reads the standard emcee spiel. "The slam was started in the 1980s by a construction worker named Marc Smithâ€”" "So what!" interject the audience members who know that one of the grand traditions of slam poetry is dismissing the importance of its founder, illustrating that there are no celebrities or superstars here. As Rucker says, "slam is grassroots" and the poets are "just regular folks, not movers and shakers." Poems are judged by randomly selected audience members who are not necessarily by poetry experts. When asked to describe what qualifies them to judge, the answers range from "having two dogs with two nostrils" to "being an elitist snob and an English major" to "living in Michigan."
In order to help these amateur judges get used to the judging process, a calibrating or "sacrificial" poet delivers a poem which is judged as though it were actually in the slam. Tonight’s sacrificial poet is Jeff, who performs a standard-length piece of three minutes or less. The five judges flip through the large, laminated numbers on their score paddles until they select the score between 0 and 10 they feel is appropriate. The high and low scores are dropped, giving the poet a total score out of 30. Jeff receives a respectable 23.9 for his poem. Excitement and anticipation fill the theater; it is time for the slam to begin.
Round One: Cole Rodriguez
After the teams from Del Ray Beach and Oklahoma City have each delivered a poem, the emcee calls out, "Lizard Lounge, who are you sending up?" The four poets on the team yell back in unison, "Cole!" Nicole "Cole" Rodriguez is a legend at the Lizard Lounge as the only woman ever to win the lounge’s individual all-star King/Queen tournament. The microphone her scepter and the stage her throne, the Lizard Queen speaks but two words before the audience becomes her subjects.
"So I find myself / Per usual / Admonishing my daughter / Bellowing from the hot kitchen / That she needs to stop / Wasting water," she begins with a deceptively simple story that most audience members can relate to. The poem escalates, telling stories the audience knows but would like to ignore. "Czechoslovakia, Egypt and Ethiopia are all / Engaged in warfare / They are feeling the scarcity of water / And are trying to hoard their own share / And here in the States, / Those of us with ghetto passes / Won’t be considered / Part of the privileged masses / They’ll be drinking lovely / While we are denied access." As her words and performance intensify like the heat waves of recent decades, she asks, "How thirsty do you have to get / Before you show a little passion?" The audience certainly responds with passionate applause and gives the poem the highest score of the round: 25.6.
Cole says that she originally planned to perform one of her signature piecesâ€”"old faithfuls," as her teammate Arthur Collins calls themâ€”and save the water poem for semifinals. However, a quick glance around the History Theatre, one of the few National Poetry Slam venues that is not 18+, reveals quite a few children under the age of ten in the audience. The poem she’d intended to do is a somewhat graphic extended metaphor about a woman asking a man if he can make love to her mind. She asks him "To penetrate my thought patterns / Invoke sly suggestions / Permeate my lower intestines / With your mental erections." Deciding that the water poem was more appropriate for this particular audience, Cole changed poems last-minute.
Slam is a dynamic art form, so it’s not unusual for a poet to alter the plan as the event progresses. Like all good writers and stage performers, slam poets must be continually attuned to the audience; the scores reveal whether or not their intuitive assessment of the room was accurate. Cole explains, "A key to my strategy is my flexibility. I’ve watched people bomb on the basis that they’ve gone in with a plan and they stick only to their plan and they’re not flexible enough to notice stuff like the makeup of the judges…or the audience’s receiving of a different piece of a similar nature." Similarly, her teammate Marlon Carey says that poets shouldn’t be constrained to doing a specific poem in a particular round. "I’m an artist; I want to feel the room!" he says. "If the room doesn’t feel this way to me, but I was told to do this poem, I’m going to deliver it poorly."
Round Two: Marlon Carey
After the Los Angeles team presents its piece, it’s time for Round Two. "Lizard Lounge, who are you sending up?" the emcee asks again. "Inphynit!" the four poets respond, yelling Marlon’s stage name. He says he began calling himself Inphynit after a particular open mic night at the Lizard Lounge when he was 22. The Lizard’s open mic sessions used to last for hours and sometimes included freestyling, a type of performance where poets and rappers improvise verses on stage. Marlon explains, "I couldn’t stop freestyling one night; I was just loving the mic and loving the freestyle vibe, probably drunk. And when I stepped outside, this girl was like, â€˜Yo! You never quit; you’re infinite!’"
This conversation inspired Marlon to change his name from Kid M.C. to Inphynit, but the name grew to have a deeper meaning. He’s not just a poet and rapper; he’s an actor, a singer, a published author, a radio show host. "Inphynit becomes this character that can’t be categorized," he says. "That’s what I try to live up to, a mission."
Not only can Inphynit’s artistry not be categorized, his poetry is not restricted to stereotypical styles and topics. Marlon explains that a lot of other African American male poets do poems about "the revolution and the ghetto," so he stands out by having a broad range of poems, including an extensive repertoire of love poems.
The poem he breaks out for Round Two is a beautiful blend of the sensual and tender sides of lovemaking that maintains a lighthearted tone throughout. "When I love you next," he begins, "it won’t be just sex."
Another way Marlon stands out from other slammers is that he enjoys impressing the audience with his poetic acumen, incorporating a lot of internal rhyme, alliteration and double entendre. He focuses on helping people "to enjoy the auditory experience" of listening to a poem. In contrast, he says that a lot of slam poetry is "very narrative, a three-minute comedy sketch, or everyday stuff that you write in your journal." Writing a poem in everyday language causes it to lose "the essence of what makes a poem a poem; the magic."
In fact, Marlon sees slam as a new art form altogether. He explains, "I have long since stopped thinking about it as being a poetry slam; it’s slam." Slam diverges from traditional poetry, coming alive for people who might not resonate with poems that are printed on a page. In a world where fewer and fewer people read for pleasure, Marlon believes that poetry is changing fundamentally. Through sharing poetry out loud, "we’re going back to the griots and the bards," he explains, conjuring up the ancient days when entire communities gathered around a bonfire to hear poets tell their history, invoke scenarios of their future, and inspire a deeper understanding of their present.
However, some poets and poetry aficionados are not enthusiastic about slam poetry. "There’s great question about if the integrity of the art form and the use of language and verse is upheld in competition," Cole explains. "Competition puts a whole new spin on things, and the fact that it’s a competition that’s specifically intended to be judged by people who are not experienced poetry listeners puts another spin on things."
"I think there are many poets who are turned off by slam poetry because they think it’s only about the numbers," Art agrees. "But it’s a good venue, particularly for people who are not used to regular poetry events…It’s an interesting, new way to appreciate the art."
Lizard Lounge team member Jamele Adamsâ€”known almost exclusively on the slam circuit as Harlym 1two5, a name he chose to celebrate 125th Street, which he calls "the vein of culture" in Harlemâ€”looks the literati squarely in the face. "Don’t criticize it â€˜cause you don’t dig it," he asserts. He goes on to note that slam poetry has been a positive force in the lives of many people he knows as an outlet for creative expression and a way to make sense of life. Because slam is a literary movement of true cultural value, Matthew Rucker believes that "the world would be a better place if poetry slam were as popular as sports or stand-up comedy."
As the applause swells for Marlon’s poem, it seems that the audience agrees.
Round Three: Arthur Collins
In Round Three, both Art and Marlon take the stage to perform a group poem. Making hand motions that suggest rifles, they shout in unison, "Pull it back and squeeze!" Pictures of urban violence illustrate American capitalism’s lack of conscience. Art delivers his line: "Years ago we were moving targets / Now we’re the urban market." Marlon joins in, the euphony of their combined voices adding emphasis to the final words of the stanza: "Targeted in different ways."
1two5 emphasizes that group pieces have to be generated organically for them to be effective. One way this happens, says Marlon, is when a team member realizes that he or she has a snippet of poetry that matches a snippet another teammate has written. Blending them begins to form a distinctive group piece.
But great group pieces also arise, Marlon says, simply from close friendships between the poets. As the poem’s rapid-fire back-and-forth continues, it’s clear that the hours Marlon and Art spent together have resulted in perfect timing and the ability to play off each other.
Art: But the truth is self-evident.
Marlon: The inhabitants of this country
Both: Still go hungry.
Art: For the proof isn’t in the pudding;
Marlon: It’s in the putting of your faith
In these small green rectangles.
Art: When the wool is over your eyes
Both: You can’t see all the angles
Art: They wash your thinking cap
And now your brain is star-spangled.
The camaraderie evident in this powerful group piece unifies this year’s Lizard Lounge team. Art explains, "Over the years, I had always said to myself, if there could be a team of myself, 1two5, Marlon, and Cole, we’d bring a different dynamic…We’ve all known each other for a couple years. I’ve seen Marlon grow up; I’ve seen Cole come from just reading poetry to actually performing it to winning the slams and doing very well with it. So I think we bring a good history and a good experience and a good chemistry." Cole agrees, "The excitement around wanting to work together was palpable."
Cole also notes that each of them brings a different skill set and attitude to team meetings. She and 1two5 are strong advocates for meeting agendas and planning ahead. Marlon, on the other hand, complained at one point, "The bureaucracy is killing me!" Cole laughed in response, "You’re such a poet!"
Cole says that Art’s personality is "to figure out what’s not being done and do it…If the room is really loud and boisterous, Art is the one that’s quiet. If no one’s saying much, Art is the loudest voice. He’s really good at reading what’s needed in the moment."
While the other three have been on the Lizard Lounge team in the past, this is Art’s first year as an official member. He has performed slam poetry for 14 years, but this year he worked especially hard to get on the team by competing in the Lizard Lounge’s weekly qualifying slams every Sunday from September until April. "Unless the Patriots were playing," he adds seriously.
Art was an alternate on the 2008 team, and Marlon notes that his poetry and performance grew and changed a lot through that experience. "He was able to see what Nationals was all about, see what he was trying to get to." He adds that he aspires to learn from Art’s theatrical talent and ability to get in character for a poem. "This year," Marlon says, "I’ve been focusing a lot on breaking the fourth wall, on resonating, on going where Art’s going."
Round Four: Harlym 1two5
According to 1two5, being able to break that fourth wall is the essential ingredient in making a powerful slam experience. Bringing poems from "page to stage," he says, is "heavy on performance…The poet immerses human structure into the delivery of that poem…and commits every ounce of their human existence to those three minutes."
And that’s just what he’s about to do.
Going into the fourth and final round, the Lizard Lounge is in the lead but less than a point ahead of Los Angeles. Luckily, 1two5 is prepared with a killer piece that celebrates black heritage and culture. "I’m the porch monkey that became President / Right after that reform Nazi became Pope," he begins. "The architect of Rock-n-Roll… / The trim of the sunset / And the highlight of midnight / Deep chocolate and Hennessey on fire / Wade in the water / Beautiful / And say it loud! (I’m Black and I’m Proud)."
As the poem goes on, it progresses from music and hairstyles to slavery and racism. "Slavery couldn’t break me / And even though the colonists / And the masters and the Spaniards / Raped me / Separated my children from me / Mutilated me / Hung me / Sold me as property / And betrayed me / I still have my black family / I taught Betsy Ross how to sew / I’m the bloodstain on the right hand of the pledge of allegiance / I’m the missing two-fifths / From your definition of three-fifths."
The repeated motif, "I’m black," casts a wider net near the end of the poem. "There was nothing before black / Before black there was more black / And just when you think you’re not black / You are black." We’re all interconnected and we’re all blackâ€”and proud of it.
The judges respond enthusiastically, bestowing on the poem a 28.4, the highest score of the entire slam. Their decision is mirrored in the audience’s resounding applause. The Lizard Lounge is officially in the semifinals, having edged out their closest competitor by a wide margin of almost five points. The team cheers excitedly and hugs in celebration.
Despite the Lizard Lounge’s stellar performance tonight, perhaps their greatest contribution is yet to come. Tomorrow night is the National Underground Poetry Individual Competition (NUPIC), an unofficial event hosted and organized by 1two5 and the rest of the Lizard Lounge team. In the spirit of slam’s oral tradition, NUPIC is not advertised in bulletins, brochures, or flyers; the time and location can only be discovered through word-of-mouth. 1two5 calls or texts the 16 individual competitors on the day of the event, and the news spreads like wildfire. "The entire poetic family ends up there," he says.
NUPIC, affectionately known amongst poets as the "underground indies," was initiated last year by 1two5. He came up with the concept because Poetry Slam, Inc., the official organization that runs the National Poetry Slam, stopped holding an individual competition at Nationals. Though poets can compete in the much smaller Individual World Poetry Slam, many missed being able to exhibit their work for the massive slam community that shows up at Nationals.
To get to this year’s NUPIC, poets wander through the deserted St. Paul skyway at 1:00 a.m. until they get to a fuchsia-colored room in the Hilton, the host hotel for Nationals. Soon the room is packed with poets sitting on the floor or in stackable chairs, and 1two5 welcomes everyone and explains how the competition works. Pairs of poets each deliver a poem and are judged, not by numbers and scorecards, but by applause alone. Whichever poet gets the louder cheer from their poetic peers moves on to the next round; the process continues until all but two poets are eliminated.
1two5 and Cole trade off facilitating rounds until, a little after 4:00 a.m., Eboni Hogan of New York City wins the crown over Oz Okoawo of the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the final round. She will get to perform on the prestigious finals stage at Nationals, and she also earns the purse money, which comes from the $125 entry fee paid by each of the competitors. The amount $125 was chosen, of course, because of 1two5’s name. He explains that he requires an entry fee because "I like for us to demonstrate the ability to invest in each other."
This supportive spirit is the core of Nationals. Though the official stages are fraught with intense, heart-pounding competition, the driving force behind the event is a shared passion for poetry. "It’s not a point of whether we win or whether we lose," says Art. "It’s more about the experience of sharing and meeting with different poets."
The Final Stage
Every poet wants to get to the finals stage. This does not conflict with the oft-quoted remark that slam is all about the poetry, not about the numbers. "On finals stage," says Marlon, "in this auditorium, it is dead silent. Dead silent; you could hear a pin drop. And the micsâ€”you could hear yourself breathe! I want to get on the finals stage! My goal is just to get there for the good mic."
But only four teams will make it there, and they must win a semifinals bout against other top teams in the nation. The Lizard Lounge’s bout is held in the Artists’ Quarter, a dimly lit jazz bar with an ambiance not so unlike the team’s home venue in Cambridge. An hour before the bout is scheduled to begin, the line of people waiting to be let inside sprawls down a hallway and up a long staircase. By the time the bout begins, the bar is packed beyond its capacity.
It’s an outstanding night of poetry featuring two teams from New York City, the louderARTS and the Nuyorican Cafe teams; Loser Slam from New Jersey; the Berkeley Poetry Slam; and the Lizard Lounge. Unfortunately, despite wonderful performances by all the poets, only one team will go on to the finals. The legendary Nuyorican team wins, heralding the end of the Lizard’s competitive journey at Nationals.
On the finals stage the following night, the Nuyorican takes second place, just behind the Saint Paul Soapboxing team. It’s a special moment for St. Paul to reclaim the national champion title on their home turf.
But win or lose, it’s been a special week for all involved. Looking around at the cheering poets and poetry lovers filling St. Paul’s massive Roy Wilkins Auditorium, Matthew Rucker must have smiled to himself. The huge and happy audience and the extended family of slam poets are under one giant roof, celebrating the power of words, the solidarity of community, and one heck of a show.