Poetry slams have played a funny fringe role in my life off and on over the years. When I was 21 and in college for the first time I started going to an open mic poetry spot where magic was created under desert skies and it was those folks who first introduced me to poetry slams.
After a brief affair with the fun competitive spirit of those events, I took a hiatus. I should interject that I was always just a watcher, not a reader. I’ve read here and there at open mics but really I prefer the inspiration of being a listener at these things to the pressure of performing, particularly within the competitive atmosphere of the slam.
A couple of years after moving here I decided to check out the slam scene in San Francisco. I dabbled here and there, went to a few of the main events, got some inspiration, met some cool people, moved on. It had been a couple of years since I went to a slam, or even an open mic for that matter, when I saw the other night that there was a Lit Slam that looked interesting here and I decided to check it out.
What’s interesting about this monthly Lit Slam is that the winners of the slam get published in an annual literary magazine called Tandem. Normally slam winners get a cash prize or just plain old praise but this puts a whole new twist on things because what they perform on stage needs to not only make for a good performance but also read well later on paper and that’s a tough thing to pull off. The shock value poems that work amazingly with the right facial features on a stage don’t necessarily work when written down pen to paper and printed in stark black and white.
The slam consisted of eight participants who were whittled down by scores to five and then to three and two of those win publication although a single winner is declared. Being there was interesting for me, because it naturally brought back the feelings of other slams, the memories of the people at open mics.
When I try to look urban and cool …
The truth is that most slams have some similar features and most poets fit easily into certain slots that tie them together with other poets in your mind. The feminist poet, the queer identified poet, the urban hip hop poet, the over-intellectual over-sensitive white guy poet … they’re just archetypes, just styles and of course each individual brings their own unique individuality to the table but when you don’t know the people and are seeing them for the first time it’s easy to replace their faces with the faces of voices from the past. I remembered moments with people I hadn’t thought about in ten years.
I tended to like what the audience and editors tended to like, for the most part, something I could tell for sure because a word or phrase would tug at my heart’s attention at the same time that a gasp would be emitted from a person in the space. And oh, the space, the space was lovely. It’s a place called Viracocha which is a retail shop in the Mission here selling wacky old things like typewriters. Downstairs is a large room with a rustic wooden stage decorated with lights set behind washboards for this artsy weird oddly-romantic atmosphere.
The winner of the slam was Cam Awkward-Rich. Here’s a YouTube clip although it’s not from the event I went to:
I also wanted to add that the feature reader, Daphne Gottlieb, was amazingly touching. I loved the way she was able to read without that sing-song poetry voice that is so hard for most of us to escape when reading poems aloud. And loved the sense of connection and poignancy she offered in her work, even in the way she dropped each page lightly but defiantly to the stage as she read it.
And also the host, Tatyana Brown, was the one who actually did my favorite poem of the night so props to her as well. Monthly event worth checking out if you happen to like live spoken word and be in San Francisco.