Thursday, May 30, 2002

Slam part 2: The end of the world as we knew it?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Poetry fans, language mavens, and wordsmiths, lend me your ears. Poetry isn’t something to be read in silence in a rocking chair. It’s not even something to read aloud to a group of latte-sipping aesthetes. The end of that world is here. It’s Slammageddon 2, live at the Skinny, June 1.

If you’re picturing Maya Angelou reciting for Bill Clinton or Robert Frost leaning heavily on the podium at JFK’s inauguration, think again. As most people know by now, poetry slams are about more than just words, though those are certainly vital. Slamming is about stage presence, sense of moment, and just plain lunacy.

Slammageddon 2 will include not only local favorite Taylor Mali, but two other poets of note and notoriety in the poetry slam world. Also playing will be up to 12 local talents, as yet undiscovered.

Long-time Second Tuesday poetry performance organizer, Jay Davis, is putting together the second annual Slammageddon, which pits individual poets in competition with one another, a change from last year’s team invitational. It will be subject to National Poetry Slam rules, including the selection of judges from the audience, with only a few guidelines, Davis says.

Judges can’t be competitors, “or sleeping with a competitor. They can, however, be bribed,” suggesting that buying drinks is often an effective way to win a poetry slam. Too many drinks, Davis warns, could make judges violate their pledge to be present throughout the event.

The competition will be in rounds, with winners of each preliminary round of four poets going on to the finals. In between each round will be what Davis calls “feature poets,” or the big names to draw a crowd.

Mali hasn’t performed in Portland for several years, so his championship talent ought to be an attraction, and the other two are strong performers in their own rights. Regie Gibson will be the lead-off feature poet. He won the individual national championship in Austin, Texas, in 1998, and while his poetry starts as words, Davis says, “by the time he’s done he’s just making noises. I don’t know how you’d spell it.”

At that Texas championship, Davis says, Gibson had “2500 or 3000 people just going through the roof. He was making Jimi Hendrix noises with his mouth.”

Gibson himself is excited to be coming to Portland, and says Mali recently suggested he head north from his Boston base. Shortly thereafter, Davis was calling. “I’m feeling a certain vague sense of fate,” Gibson says. He is a bit more modest about his reputation as a stage performer, demurring gently to rumors of his excellence and crediting the energy of his audiences for his charisma in the limelight. “It sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun,” was the only glimpse he would give of his plans for the show.

The second feature will be Ken Cormier, with a mind Davis likens to David Byrne in two different ways. First, he calls him “an insane David Byrne,” but then revises that and proposes a world in which David Byrne is the equivalent of Frank Sinatra. Cormier, he says, would be the David Byrne of that world. Angelou and Frost fans, cover your ears.

Davis hopes the event will help make poetry an even bigger part of Portland’s cultural life. He has already convinced the Skinny to revise its standing-room-only policy to include a few tables and chairs for people to enjoy a more leisurely evening of poetry. But he expects the place to be packed and rocking from its 8 p.m. start until its midnight conclusion.

Another draw should be the big money given to winners. The top finisher will get $100, which is enough, Davis says, to get the attention of poets as far away as Boston. These “big city slam thugs,” as he calls them, may come up to compete, lending a sense of gravitas to the Skinny’s ambiance, and a real rivalry between Portland poets and those from away.

Davis issues a final challenge to local poetry favorites and Mali loyalists: “Regie Gibson may be better than Taylor Mali,” he says, his voice glittering at the prospect of seeing both on stage in the same venue.