“We are all a little weird
and life’s a little weird,
and when we find someone whose weirdness
is compatible with ours,
we join up with them and
fall in mutual weirdness
and call it love.”
― Dr. Seuss
Eugene is known as a mecca of art. From the Last Friday Art Walk, to the Hult Center, to the summer Bach festival, artists have found a welcoming and supportive home in this city. We have everything from visual art to music and musicals to protest art from the Occupy Eugene crowd.
A talented but obscure part of our art community is slam poetry. For the last decade, the Eugene Poetry Slam has hosted and promoted this unique form of poetry with hardly any media attention.
The Eugene Poetry Slam began in the 2000s when a group of highschool and college students joined together with older poets at the then-Buzz Coffee House at the University of Oregon’s Erb Memorial Union building. They had an interest in “slam,” a new and diverse form of written word that had been gaining attention around the world. “Slam” is spoken word poetry, a fusion of written word and performance art.
This last weekend the Eugene Poetry Slam celebrated the end of their season with a theme night, where artists performed pieces that loosely followed the idea of the “sexual” or “erotic.” The “sex slam” was held at Tsunami Book Store and was a riotous, joyful, and touching evening.
A short history of slam
Slam poetry began in the 1980s, when a construction worker, Mark Smith, started a poetry reading at a jazz club in Chicago. Smith was looking for ways to revitalize the open mike nights at the Get Me High lounge. His poetry readings, with a high emphasis on performance, laid the foundation for what is now known as slam poetry. A couple years after, he approached Dave Jemilo, owner of the Green Mill jazz club, with the idea of hosting weekly poetry competitions. The first poetry slam was held at the Jemilo’s club on July 25, 1986. Since then the Green Mill has evolved into a mecca for slam poets. To this day the Mill hosts a weekly slam poetry competition.
In 1990 the first-ever National Poetry Slam occured in San Francisco, featuring three teams from Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. In 1998 the community received a slight boost into the mainstream, when Slam, a film starring Saul Williams (himself an award-winning slam poet and recording artist) and Sonja Sohn which tells the story of a young African-American man who uses poetry to overcome his socio-economic troubles, won the Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. Fast forward to this year when the National Poetry Slam features over 80 teams and lasts five days long. Slam competitions have gone international, with large scenes everywhere from Canada to Russia to Australia to India.
Recently, slam poetry has become very popular as a form of self-expression among teenagers—as well as an excellent tool for educators to get teenagers interested in art. The 2010 documentary Louder than a Bomb followed this youth interest in slam poetry, showing the fortunes of four Chicago-area high school poetry teams as they prepared for and competed in the world’s largest youth slam.
How it works
The typical format at any poem slam, including Eugene’s, is as follows: there is a round of open mic performances, a performance by a featured poet, and then the actual slam competition. In the competition, poets perform in succession. Each is judged by a panel of judges, scored on a scale of 1 to 10. Each performer’s score is recorded by the official score keeper. At the end of the performances, the top five get to move onto the next round. The cycle is repeated, and the top three receive cash prizes and a chance to perform at the season’s final.
Roxy, the booking coordinator for the Eugene Poetry Slam, explained the format of the slam season:
“Slam season is from September to May,” Roxy said. “We hold a reading and competition on the 2nd Saturday of every month. The finals are held in May, featuring the top 3 poets from each month’s competition. The top 4 poets from the finals win either cash prizes or a place on the Eugene slam team.”
Depending on the interest of the finalists, the Eugene group decides whether to send a team to compete in the regional slam tournament. Last year they sent a team to regionals, held in Portland at the Backspace Cafe, where they competed against the finalists from Seattle, Portland, and Boise. They also performed at the Oregon Country Fair. This year the finalists from Eugene opted for cash prizes instead of traveling to the regional.
This slam is 18+
Last weekend the Eugene Poetry Slam held its end-of-the-year celebration. Since this night was the year’s-end celebration, the event had a theme: “Erotic.” To add to the fun, the Slam gave away prizes donated by Castle Adult Superstore and featured performances from several Eugene burlesque groups, Trudy Bauchery and the Broadway Revue, throughout the evening. The event was a wild success. The crowd was engaging, loud, and enthusiastic — not a single chair went empty. In fact, groups of people had to stand.
The night began with live jazz performed by Kenny Reed and his band, followed by a half hour of open mic performances. Then Jorah, the slam’s administrator, took to the stage to introduce the evening’s featured poet, Tatyana Brown. Brown has an impressive resume: she is ranked 4th in the world in competitive slam poetry and is an award-winning haiku poet as well. Brown performed a heated, touching, and illuminative poem about her relationship with a lover, received with cheers and applause from the audience. The poem featured one of the strangest lines ever in an erotic poem — “you’ve got the most beautiful lymph nodes I’ve seen all day” — that proved an arresting image when later placed into a context of someone fighting cancer.
Jorah, the evening’s host and administrator of EPS, commented on the night’s theme of sex, or eroticism.
“It’s funny,” she said, “when you throw out a theme like ‘erotic.’ You get anything from the pains of a broken heart to extraterrestial alien orgasms. It’s a testament to human creativity.”
And Jorah was not joking. The evening’s poems went all over the place, ranging from the embarrassments of one’s first intimate encounter, one-night stands, sex with extraterrestrial beings as a metaphor for presidential politics, to how discrimination and fear can get in the way of finding true love. Words and images heralded the Christian gospel, green tea, cocaine, Bush and Cheney, even puppies wrestling.
Prajna, Eugene Poetry Slam’s scorekeeper and a poet herself, said that this variety is what draws her to slam poetry:
“I appreciate the authentic expression. The simple ways in which slam lets you be who you are. There are no rules. It gives you freedom.”
Prajna has been with the group since it started at the Buzz Coffee House at the U of O. “We used to be anarchist punk homeschoolers,” she laughs. “Now I’m the only person left from the old days. But I still love it. Today, so many people talk, but few listen. This is a time we have to intentionally listen to one another. It’s awesome.”
Attendees came from all over. DeShaun, a slam poet himself, traveled from Portland just to be there.
“I love the Eugene scene,” he said. “It is a very welcoming place.”
Prajna agrees, expressing how supportive this city is of its poetry community.
“Eugene is supportive, very much so,” Prajna said. “There are multiple open mics around the city, Cosmic Pizza has had many youth open mic nights. It’s one big community.”
DeShaun said that content is the distinguishing mark between Eugene and Portland. “Eugene is more metaphysical. There is less an emphasis on performance and more emphasis on the literature of the pieces. Also, the audience is great. It is more diverse than Portland. There are both young and old poets alike. Portland is all young kids from the college scene.”
Prajna summed up what brings so many people to the Eugene Poetry Slam, time after time, for the last decade:
“I come to hear people’s stories. To get a new window on the way people see themselves. And what stories people want to tell.”
For more information about the Eugene Poetry Slam, visit their website at http://eugenepoetryslam.webs.com/. Or you can attend one of their events beginning next season, starting the 2nd Saturday of the month beginning October through June. Their events are held at Tsunami Books at 2585 Willamette St, Eugene, OR 97405.
[gn_box title=”A selection of celebrated slam poets” color=”#333333″]
(Warning, some of these videos have language or subject matters not suitable for children.)
- Taylor Mali, “What Teachers Make,” Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxsOVK4syxU
- Saul Williams, “Coded Language,” Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzY2-GRDiPM
- George Watsky, “S for Lips,” Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GvTLfV8fls
- Katie Makkai, “Pretty,” Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6wJl37N9C0&feature=related
- Rachel McKibbens, “After School Special,” Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPrNQfiEFIU