POETRY SLAM-OFF AT MONTEVALLO
I drive past the white picket fence surrounding the beautiful, ideal American dream because I know it doesn’t belong to me, wasn’t meant for me. I see the lamp posts and the buildings of the colonial village lit up on Friday nights, quiet but shining like a city on a hill. I know these lights are not my port of call, but they are a beacon to guide me on my way to my true home.
For the past nine years, since 2003, I have driven past the American Village in Montevallo to slough off the dead skin of my dull American existence – going to work, going out to eat, and going to the grocery store – to arrive at my true home: the Montevallo Poetry Slam at Eclipse Coffee and Books, where I can be my authentic self, where I can express through the vehicle of slam poetry my struggles as a breast cancer survivor, a rape survivor, and an economically challenged office temp. Every Friday, once a month, I can say the most depressing, angry, abysmally dark things and know that I will be accepted by a community of my peers, other slam poets who are eager to get on the microphone and share their stories. I may be judged by audience members chosen at random, giving me scores between zero and ten – and believe me, I’ve gotten my fair share of scores ranging from 1.3 all the way to a perfect ten – but I know that a close-knit community of other slam poets is always there to support me, welcome me, and cheer me on.
It doesn’t matter if I’m slamming about my whole left breast being cut off, being sexually assaulted, or going to the botanical gardens to see red roses and sunshine. I know Eclipse Coffee and Books belongs to me, and even if I lose, so what? “The best poet always loses,” or so the Nuyorican Poets Café says. I’ve only won one slam in the entire nine years I’ve competed in the Montevallo Poetry Slam, but I’ve made lifelong friends and for the first time in my life, I feel like I belong.
Unlike the suburban high school where I listened to taunts from fellow classmates for being “different.”
Wearing all-black clothes and listening to punk music hadn’t quite caught on in Center Point in the mid-to-late 1980s. Coupled with being “a freak,” shyness has always been a part of my life, and people have mistaken this for snobbery. I just don’t think that what I have to say is cool, and I’m afraid most people will laugh at or reject me. But there’s something about the poetry slam – I don’t know what it is – that makes me turn into this other person: fearless, emboldened to say what I feel, no matter what anyone else may think.
Maybe it’s the microphone stand that acts as a shield between me and the audience. Even though audience members are encouraged to boo the judges if they give a low score to a poet they felt was phenomenal, the audience has never booed me while I was on the microphone. I’ve even been called a “warrior poet” by fellow slam poets like Jerri Hardesty.
How did this shy, introverted girl who once was a bundle of nerves in her college speech class -- forgetting her entire, memorized speech -- transform herself into a fearless slam poet? More importantly, how can you become a slam poet if you’ve never gotten on the mic before but burn to have your voice heard?
“For a first timer, I would say don’t take it too seriously. I understand that’s difficult because it’s important to you and it’s serious when you have something to share,” says Kirk Hardesty, slam master and emcee of the Montevallo Poetry Slam. “But if you take it too seriously, you may get discouraged because poetry slam is rather random.”
The first poetry slam was started by a construction worker named Marc Smith in 1984 at the Get Me High Jazz Club in Chicago, as a way to get the crowd excited about poetry, rather than sentencing them to another monotone performance droning on and on “like a ceiling fan,” to borrow a phrase from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Slam Poetry, written by Smith, with Joe Kraynak (Alpha Books, Penguin Group USA, 2004). According to Smith, “Performance poets perform anywhere. They have trained themselves to succeed wherever and in whatever context they’re called on to emote – bowling alleys, churches, temples, pool halls, street fairs, commuter trains, discotheques, you name it. The slam’s mission has been to throw off the shackles of how and where poetry should be presented.”
I’ve been to my share of bookstore readings where prizewinning published poets deliver each and every poem with the same inflection, and golf claps are politely handed out at the end of each poem. But I’d rather go to a poetry slam where anything can happen, the way Smith, in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Slam Poetry, described the beginnings of the slam poetry movement in 1984. “Slam poetry is the brainchild of Marc Smith (So What!) and the blue-collar intellectual eccentrics who crammed into the Get Me High Jazz Club on Monday nights from November 1984 to September 1986 for a wide-open poetry experience. The experimenters in this new style of poetry presentation gyrated, rotated, spewed, and stepped their words along the bar top, dancing between the bottles, bellowing out the backdoor, standing on the street or on their stools, turning the west side of Chicago into a rainforest of dripping whispers or a blast furnace of fiery elongated syllables, phrases, snatches of scripts, and verse that electrified the night.”
Maybe it was all the times when I was little that my grandfather, or “Papa” as I used to call him, encouraged me to sing Christmas songs and taped me, or maybe it was the time I competed in a third grade talent show with my Cookie Monster puppet, but there’s always been a part of me that’s a “ham,” despite my shyness. Maybe it’s because it’s difficult for me to share who I am on a one-to-one basis, but in front of a crowd full of people where it’s not so intimate, it’s easy for me to bare my heart.
It’s like what fellow slam poet Sarah McCune says. “When I slam, I become this whole other person. If you know me, you know I’m reserved and I don’t really speak my mind unless prompted. But if you really get to know me, you’ll know I’m constantly opinionated about everything, so I want people to take away that there is something they can find in poetry, that it doesn’t have to be written in iambic pentameter or have to have allusion or anything fancy. Poetry is sort of the everyday, and it can be banal and mundane and the most exciting thing. I just hope they take away the energy that when I get up there and present it for them, it’s a communal experience.”
The Montevallo Poetry Slam began in a place called Barnstormers Pizza, with the help of an unlikely community. “The slam was started back in 1998 by a couple of fraternity brothers,” Hardesty says. “I think they were doing it basically just for fun. They didn’t keep up with it very well, but it sort of caught fire and they were not consistent, so the owner of Barnstormers asked me one day if I’d be willing to do it, and I said ‘yeah.’ I was in the right place at the right time.” Hardesty had been assisting in the Great Birmingham Poetry Slam, co-founded in 1996 by Craig Legg and Hunter Bell. The owner of Barnstormers heard of Hardesty’s assistance with the Birmingham slam and wanted to keep the Montevallo slam going because it was a popular thing. “So he asked me to do it and I agreed to it. I’ve been stuck here ever since,” Hardesty says.
His self-deprecating sense of humor is part of what makes the Montevallo slam so appealing. It’s fun, no one takes it too seriously, and if you do, you’re in the wrong place. Or, as an old adage I learned at the Birmingham slam goes, “Leave your ego at the door.” The Montevallo slam moved from Barnstormers to Eclipse Coffee and Books in 2003, and Hardesty has carried on as the slam master. It’s hard work, even though he might not tell you that. A slam master has to recruit judges from the audience, enlist sometimes hesitant poets to slam, emcee the slam, explain the rules of the slam, keep the time and the score if no one else will, and possibly break up any fights.
Despite the rules of the poetry slam – each poet must perform his or her own work, the poem must be three minutes or less, and the poet must not use props, music, or costumes – there have never been any conflicts at the Montevallo slam. “We’ve never had any real altercations here,” Hardesty says. “We’re really very accepting of whatever anybody does and if they break a rule, we’ll take the penalty for it, but we’re very encouraging of whatever anybody wants to bring to the mic. We have several poets who break rules frequently like prop rules or time penalty rules, because for these poets, the message is more important than the contest. I have the greatest respect for poets who think the art is more important than the score.”
Or as slam poet Allan Wolf of Asheville, North Carolina put it, “The points are not the point… the point is poetry.” Because even though slam poetry is competitive, it’s really just a theatrical device or vehicle to get people excited about poetry. Slam poet Jerri Hardesty says, “I’ve always been a very competitive person,” when asked about how she got drawn into the poetry slam. “I think it pushes everybody to the next level and it adds an element of excitement and fun, especially with audience participation. It’s very rewarding to get that immediate reaction to your poetry.”
Even though Jerri Hardesty says she is competitive, she and the entire Montevallo slam team embodied the spirit of community at Southern Fried Regionals when it was held in Birmingham in June 2006. There was another poetry slam team that arrived late to Southern Fried, and the entire Montevallo slam team gave up their spot in the competition so the team from out of state could have the chance to compete. I’m proud to be part of such a wonderful slam family. I feel a sense of belonging I’ve never felt anywhere else.
Other poets feel that same sense of acceptance when they come to the Montevallo slam. Tranesia “Lady” Caldwell, a slam poet from Huntsville, received an invite last year to the Montevallo slam, and she wanted to get some diversity in her life. “I said you know what, I’m tired of the same poetry scene, I want to go get some diversity in my life, so I came here. When I came in, you didn’t see my color. Here, we are just poets. I didn’t have a color, I didn’t have a gender. I was just a poet. I love that.” Her stage name is “Lady,” or “Love ain’t done yet.” “God is love,” she says. “I want people to see that. We all have a right to contribute a verse.”
Slam master Kirk Hardesty echoes those sentiments. “Everybody is welcome, whether you think you’re talented or not. If you have something to say whether you think it’s poetry or prose, as long as it’s original, we want to hear it. We want to encourage everybody to come out and share what they have to say and who they are. Everybody has a valid voice.”
So even though I was rejected in high school, even though I will never be rich enough to own a brick-andmortar slice of the American dream like those colonial buildings shining their beacons of light as I drive past the American Village on a Friday night, I know I have a place in life, a home whose name is the Montevallo Poetry Slam, at Eclipse Coffee and Books.
As poet Sarah McCune expressed in a poem she performed at the last Montevallo poetry slam on February 3rd :
I want you to understand that when I speak tonight/I’m speaking to you not because God told me to/but because I made a choice./God didn’t just give us free will to say, “to hell.”/He gave us free will so that we can get on the stage./We make sure that everyone knows that they have their own way./ Yes, He gave us Dharma and Buddha and all these things we call Christ/ but we’re all constructing toothpick ideologies into ornate steeples./If you ever lose your place remember this one thing,/we’re all brought to one place tonight – a coffee shop in Alabama.
Upcoming dates for the Montevallo poetry slam are March 2nd and April 13th . Eclipse Coffee and Books is located at 1032 Main Street in Montevallo, Alabama. For more information, call Eclipse Coffee and Books at 205-665-4234 or visit www.eclipsecoffee.com. You can also visit www.newdawnunlimited. com for more information about the Montevallo poetry slam. A couple of other good resources to expose yourself to what slam poetry is typically like are the following books: The Spoken Word Revolution, Mark Eleveld, editor, Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2002, as well as The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, Alan Kaufman, editor, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Slam Poetry, referenced earlier in the article, contains two audio CDs with poetry and commentary so you can hear some examples of slam poetry. Or better yet, just go to the Montevallo Poetry Slam on March 2nd !