Slam poetry, rowdy and growing
The poet takes the stage with a rolling swagger and flashes a grin to a friend in the front row. He's got the brazen look of a boxer entering the ring, and he cracks his neck before grabbing the microphone to speak. But what comes out of his mouth isn't a poem drenched in testosterone; it's not about drugs or mean streets or bar fights. It's about the heartbreak of working in an overwhelmed education system.
"I'm standing in a school, or a submarine," the poet says in a quiet voice that builds into a crescendo. "Everything is gray, and the walls can almost kiss one another. Kids are avalanching around my legs, flowing into one another, their faces erased by their sheer numbers." A few regulars in the crowd cheer or snap their fingers, recognizing the opening lines from past performances.
The three-minute piece is built of small word-and-image whirlwinds; its chaotic structure mirrors the disorganization of the classrooms and cafeterias over which the poet laments. But moving the piece along is the repeated phrase "My job these days is...," as in, "My job these days is to identify bodies," and later, "My job these days is to be one more positive male role model teaching them how to write poetry...and it's killing me."
The performance hits its helpless conclusion: "My job these days is to find a way to be both brick and builder," the poet almost sneers, "to teach starfish to fly." His shoulders slump with the impossibility of his last line, and the crowd erupts with applause and shouts of appreciation.
"Let's hear it for El Guante!" hollers the MC, giving props to the local spoken-word artist, poet, and rapper. "Now put up your scores!" Five audience members hold scoreboards in the air. High numbers are met with more applause. Low-scoring judges face boos and a derisive shout: "You never went to public school!"
This passionate, rowdy, and often drunken crowd isn't convening for a stuffy academic poetry reading; this is slam poetry, the art of competitive spoken-word performance. The poems on display are bombastic, kinetic, and most importantly, highly entertaining.
Slam poetry has had a voice in the Twin Cities for 15 years. Until recently it's been an underground event, mostly attended by dedicated fans who gather at the scene's two established slams: St. Paul's Soapboxing Poetry Slam and Minneapolis's SlamMN. Both slams sent teams of poets to nationals this year in Madison, Wisconsin; they did well enough to suggest that Minnesota is poised to take a spot among the top slam scenes in the nation.
That success is accompanied by a surge in the ranks of both poets and audience. With the beginning of the competitive season this fall, a new slam venue, 48th Street Slam, opened its doors in south Minneapolis to accommodate the demand. The scene is attracting larger crowds, more creative souls willing to brave the stage, and poetry of a higher caliber.
The forces behind the three local slams are the slam masters, who not only act as MCs during performances but organize, coach, and foster involvement. We talked to each of them about what they do, what makes Minnesota slam poetry unique, and where they see the scene moving.
Kieran's Irish Pub, Minneapolis, second Tuesday of every month
With Kieran's tiny stage and cozy am- bience, SlamMN is the longest running and most informal slam in the Twin Cities. Audience members pack away shepherd's pie and Guinness as they listen, and smoke breaks are sometimes called by group consensus between rounds.
Allison Broeren is the extroverted, big-smiling slam master of SlamMN. But when she first started coming to slams four years ago, she was cautious; it took her a year of sitting in the audience before she felt prepared to compete. Nowadays she's one of the scene's most welcoming voices.
"It's created a culture across the U.S. that's like a family," she says. "Poets can travel anywhere where there's slam poetry and they'll have somewhere to stay and somewhere to perform."
As slam master at SlamMN, Broeren coached this year's nationals team. "We didn't make it to semifinals, and that was fine—we were against a whole bunch of tough teams. We were a little disappointed because St. Paul was in our first bout, because we compete against them all the time, but we were proud that St. Paul and Minneapolis came in first and second in that bout out of four teams."
In the Minneapolis slam, poets have been doing more than just competing, she says. "We have a lot of people who want to take poetry into the schools and the community. We want to have a large mobilizing unit of poets and not have the end-all-be-all be what's going on onstage.
"I think people have really knee-jerk reactions to what slam poetry is," she says. "People think it's just a bunch of dirty poets doing terrible poetry. And because it's open to anyone you might see some terrible stuff," she admits. "But you might see the best thing you've ever seen, too."
Broeren is ambitious about the future of slam in Minnesota. "We'd like to sell out theaters, to be one of the premier events that people are excited to come out to," she says.
48th Street Slam
Pepito's Parkway Theater, Minneapolis, third Sunday of every month
Dave Crady goes by the tongue-in cheek stage name Wonder Dave. His poetry combines sarcasm and sincerity with the touch of a painter mixing colors, as he tackles topics from queer issues to the joys of nerd sex. Crady co-hosted SlamMN with Broeren for two years and was a member of that slam's nationals team this year, but in August he split off to become slam master of the 48th Street Slam.
48th Street's venue, the Parkway Theater, doubles the seating capacity of its sister slams (and boasts 20 decadent leather couches near the stage). "It's more of a spectacle here because we have a big stage, and we have music between poets, which adds to the atmosphere." Crady says. "And for poets, the theater forces you to be bigger. You have more space to fill. You have to bring it."
"Poetry slam is judged by five randomly selected schmucks," Crady laughs. "Getting scored is challenging and scary sometimes, but it's nice to know what people think of you, like, 'Oh, this person thinks my poem is an 8.2.' If people are scared, they should just come and do it."
"We have a really diverse slam scene, stylistically speaking," Crady says. "I would love to see it be more diverse than it is in every way—a bigger age range and more cultural diversity. And I think that's going to happen, it's a natural evolution."
He loved competing in nationals. "You're facing off against a wider variety of people. Everything seems really heightened at nationals. You have to step up your game. I was like, 'I need to nail this poem and leave everything on the stage and tear my guts out.' We rocked our poems."
Soapboxing Poetry Slam
The Artists' Quarter, St. Paul, first Monday of every month
Soapboxing Poetry Slam makes its home in the dark, subterranean jazz club the Artists' Quarter. With its two-drink minimum, it's the booziest slam in the Cities, and crowds tend to be even more boisterous than normal for slam. But Soapboxing has a reputation as a veterans' stage, where the best poets come to square off.
That reputation can be intimidating to newcomers. "We're working on that," says Soapboxing's slam master, Matthew Rucker. "I want to bring a lot more variety to the stage. But because I do care about quality, we're starting workshops for beginners through intermediate to teach them to come out confidently."
He says his own slam debut six years ago was simultaneously "a good and horrible first experience. I was doing fantastically until two stanzas away from the end, I couldn't remember another word. I didn't know the protocol was just to leave the stage, so I stood there trying to remember the lines. I would have gone to the next round but I got a massive time penalty."
Rucker doesn't try to hide his pride in slam poetry as an art form. "There are very many 'purists' that think that the only true poetry is classical poetry. But poetry was an oral tradition that got stolen by academia. In a sense, slam is more legitimate than what they do. And the fact that you're going to be judged forces the poet to get better. Slam poetry will almost always be better than most spoken word."
He coached Soapboxing's national team to a semifinal finish this year. "When they got onstage, they pulled out the magic. I just sat there with my jaw on the floor going, 'Oh, my God, this is beautiful,'" he says. "But for some reason a lot of scenes don't see us as a threat until we just cream them in competition. I want them to fear us just as much as they fear some of the New York and Bay Area slams."
"I see Minnesota really, really staking its claim on the national scene as a powerhouse," Rucker says. "The Twin Cities are right up there with the best slam scenes in the country."
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