A poet’s history of slam, revised.

15 October 2012 § 1 Comment

On a dismal Wednesday evening in Topeka, Kansas, autumn 2003: I stood at the library pulpit, reading a poem to a crowd of nine fellow students, one librarian, and a bald teacher from Chicago. It was the first time I’d spoken aloud by choice. I was in grade 12.

The teacher, whose name was Daniel Ferri, claimed to be a Slam Poet, whatever that was. He was leading a two-day writing workshop, and held an open mic on the evening of the first day.

I signed up for the open mic to get out of the house. Yes, I wrote poetry, but no one knew that. I certainly wasn’t of the calibre that deserved a workshop, but I could leave home for a few hours to avoid homework.

The title of the poem was ‘History’s Night.’ I thought it was the best I had, perhaps because its containing form was cohesive, or at least repetitive, and I’d cleverly placed the word ‘funereal’ where no lesser a word belonged. I stood up when my name was called, looked everyone in the eye, and let my eyes jump from the paper back to theirs at the parts I’d memorized. The students clapped. Ferri, who sat in the back with his legs crossed gaily, nodded, I thought, in approval.

Afterward, the librarian told me that Ferri wanted me in his workshop the next day, insisted that I settle the matter with my teachers: I would not be attending class on Thursday; I would be in the library, where a bald man with a VCR would redirect the course of my life.

Exactly what happened on Thursday I do not remember, but I imagine it was the normal fare of poetry workshops: we amplified our babies with our voices and overhead projectors, then butchered them with pens and dry erase markers. When half the teenage poets in the room had crawled under the tables to lament and write some more, Dan Ferri pulled the TV-VCR cart front and center, slipped SlamNation into the fat black slot, and smiled.

Maybe it wasn’t a smile knowing what his film would to me. Maybe he smiled because he was a participant, and nearly a winner, in the 1996 National Slam, the very competition captured in the film. Perhaps he smiled because he was honored, or still insulted, that Taylor Mali (!) mocked his style in the advanced rounds. Perhaps because when Saul Williams took the stage, and Dan Ferri looked directly at me for the first time all day (was I not his golden child, the only poet plucked from the open mic last night; had I not graduated instantly, inconveniently, to his already-overbooked workshop? Did I not deserve his attention undivided!?), he was telling me why he had brought me there. His look said “Sean, I know my words won’t cause earthquakes in you; they’re not meant to. I am here as a vessel, to bring you this.

This was an ageless being whose impeccable, Saturnus flow teleported hip-hop all the way from my childhood back into my heart, whose images expanded imaginations in warp speed seconds. His nod, when he’d finished a piece, sincere, gracious, peaceful. If a poet could be embodied, a poet would look like Saul Williams.  I wanted to do what he did. I wanted to know what he did. I wanted to stand up in the world and show up like he did.

My notebook became one littered with images and passionate pieces that I couldn’t wait to unleash on a stage. I asked around to see if there were any poetry slams in Topeka. I called coffee shops, where they were commonly held in far off places like New York City and Chicago. They hadn’t even heard of them.

I felt enlightened with no direction as to where to point my light. Where could I read? Where could I go to be inspired? Fuck you, Dan Ferri. How could you give this to me and not offer me an outlet? 

In the nine years since Saul Williams’ performance jolted me into believing that words could change how people thought and saw the world, I’ve swum Saturn’s rivers with stolen pens, performing in slams only when it felt right, when the competitive edge didn’t define the event. Dada, in Delray Beach Florida, popped my cherry. I wrote my favorite piece in a double decker bus in Asheville, during an open mic in which I had to duck my head when I spoke. In 2010 Anchorage, I organized with a friend an open-mic poetry jam solely because I missed the stage.

My interest and dedication to Slam have rarely lasted long, but have been at pivotal times to form friendships that I cherish. My own nod is one of completion; whether it has the peace I see in Saul’s gratitude I don’t know. This weekend I’ve introduced myself to the poetry scene in Portland, a place where hipsters hate hipsters, where the traditional Slam scores were thrown out the window when someone realized no one in Liberal Arts Degree, USA could do math, where the poets are vibrant vagabonds from the world over, one and all the skinny-jeaned welcoming committee.

To this day, I have the copy of Dan Ferri’s book he gave each of us. He signed mine “to the great substitute.” I wonder if someone had abandoned his slot so that I could have a place in the workshop. The Poet’s Flow is an instinctual drift from one place to the next, and we belong exactly where we are. For now.


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