Thursday, July 26, 2007
In the recesses of the redwood forest behind Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library, a lone poet faces a majestic audience of trees, plants and dirt. Behind him, on the other side of the library, the 10th Annual West Coast Poetry Slam proceeds at a rollicking pace with its latest teams of California’s slam poets. Their impassioned voices ring out of the speakers and sail through the forest past the lone poet. But he doesn’t hear them – he is too focused on the verses he will soon speak before the many gathered around the stage. His poem is called “America,” and begins, “Who needs another poem about America?”
That poet is Gill from the Los Angeles “Green” team, and he shares many qualities with the assembled community of slam poets: he is young, passionate, political, and informed by hip-hop culture. He is also here to compete in teams for cash prizes and a chance to inherit a winning legacy that the West Coast Poetry Slam bestows. For five years, winners of this weekend slam have gone on to win or place highly in the National Poetry Slam.
The performers are mostly in their 20s. One, however, is old enough to be their mother. She is certainly a mother of this culture – Patricia Smith is the four-time National Poetry Slam champion and one of the founders of the movement.
“Slam came from Chicago,” she says. “That’s where it was born. My friend Marc Smith, who was a construction worker at the time, 1988, came up with the idea to bring more people to his favorite bar, the Get Me High Lounge.”
Since, the events have grown far and fast, she says. “It’s exciting and sad because things get so big and they move on,” Smith notes. “People forget the history of it – like Civil Rights. And everyone’s angry.”
To wit, on stage a young black poet named Jovan promises that “this poem is the blackest poem you will ever hear./ It is so black, every line ends with the word ‘black’/ It is so black it gave Wesley Snipes a bitch slap./ Black.” And so on. His delivery harnesses the fervor of Malcolm X and the comedy of Dick Gregory.
Later, a poet from Oakland adds her own intesity, saying, “I want a man that I love so hard/ that I can cut a bitch that looks at him too long.” On this day, even in love there is a rawness.
Poems about heavy topics like war, sexual politics, race, religion, rape, divorce, the environment and an array of other topics parade across the stage, punctuated with desperate reaches of the hand, fists jabbing the air, rising and falling voice intonations.
In contrast to the group efforts of most teams, the members of the Monterey team perform individually, in a medley of styles. Tyson Anderson cups his hands to his mouth and sings the Arabic call to prayer; Marcos Cabrera spits rhymes about his East Salinas hood; Richard Best prowls the stage, dropping beat poetry; Ibrahim Musa gives a stentorian oratory on his native Sudan.
The event MC, Jerry Quickly – a massive man with a massive afro – injects a buffer of funny banter between performances. He roasts Carmel’s Bernardus Resort, where he is staying during the slam: “I am the blackest thing at Bernardus next to the lava stone soaking tub in my suite.” DJ Jedi (Diggable Planets) spins fresh-from-the-streets hip-hop cuts, classic rock and old school soul music all day until dusk arrives.
The next day, Smith supplements the second day of competion with a special performance, which is received with reverent silence, then an eruption of a standing ovation – the only one of the weekend.
At the end of the event, when the scores from the five volunteer judges picked from among the audience are tabulated, an unlikely team emerges victorious: Berkeley. Their traditional style stood out among the other, largely hip-hop-influenced crews for its mostly angst-free flow: One of their poems was a response to his girlfriend posing the question, “Does my butt look big?” There is some dissent about the judges’ decision.
Smith has her own ideas. “I liked the Monterey team,” she says. “They were quieter, more thoughtful, textured. They seemed less interested in winning than presenting poems they had carried with them a long time.”
That is the nature of the slam poetry event that Patricia Smith helped birth. With nurturing it has grown, formed its own ideas about what it is, and then moved on, beyond her maternal grasp.
VIDEO DOWNLOADS OF THE 10TH ANNUAL WEST COAST POETRY SLAM will be available in the coming weeks at westcoastslam.com. The National Poetry Slam takes place Aug. 7-11 in Austin, Texas.