Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Work of Wordsmiths

I am that poet who can’t show fit emotions in life
but bleeds out on the stage under a spotlight.
A poet who tries his best to be bold
and – while no Rumpelstiltskin –
every now and again, attempts to spool language into gold.

The stanza above is from one of the poems I wrote for spoken word slams and open mics called Notes on Alchemy: Failure to Convert Oxygen. This poem explains why I write poetry.

The art of spoken word is fairly fresh to me. In the first few weeks after a break-up I could not focus at my job at and engineering firm – I found it difficult to do much of anything – until I began to write poetry again, something I had put off for some time (probably because of the relationship). I had heard of “slam” poetry and figured since I couldn’t focus at the office that I would take a five minute Google break and hyper-educate myself on the subject of slam poetry.

What happened next cast a hex upon my soul and changed my view of poetry forever. Deep down, I always knew I wasn’t a dork, or effeminate, because I liked to read and write poetry. I knew poetry was cool, somewhere. Sure enough, it had been cool for quite some time and now I have video proof.

My search led me to Youtube videos of extravagant wordsmiths who lamented everything from racial bias, to social injustice, and broken hearts. They also celebrated life, the ability to speak and be heard, love, and family – to name some of the subject matter.

Check out Taylor Mali (, who was the first person I came across and also Rives ( to see what I mean about poetry being cool.

I discovered Def Poetry Jam and that poetry can mix comedy, tragedy, peace, and war in the same breathe. Some of the poems had me laughing so hard or feeling so down that I was catching the unwanted attention of my coworkers.

In the midst of my discovery I also found out that there was a difference between performance poetry and “slam” poetry; in fact, “slam” poetry is not really correct terminology (there used to be a video of Taylor Mali explaining this but it has since been removed from Youtube). But the difference is that performance poetry is any poem that is intended to be performed aloud with inflections, in character, to a beat, etc. Performance poetry makes up the poems of a poetry slam. A slam is a contest that usually begins with 15-18 poets. They get up and “spit” their poems in a time limit (this usually forces them to trim or speed up otherwise long and involved poems). The time limit usually consists of three minutes. Five judges are chosen at random from the crowd (versed in slam poetry or not, it doesn’t matter) and each judge rates each poem from 1-10 (they can score using one decimal point as well, i.e 3.6). The highest and lowest scores are dropped and the rest are totaled. Based upon the totals, those poets in the top twelve move on to the next round to perform another three-minute poem. Then the field is cut to six in the same scoring manner as above. There is a third round, which usually cuts the time limit down to a minute and a half or two minutes. The field is cut to three based on who scores the best and then there is a final one-minute round and the winner takes the prize (usually poets pay an entry fee with part going to the promoters and the rest to the winner).

This kind of contest was created by Marc Smith to enrich the spoken word poetry scene in 1985. Smith was a construction worker from Chicago who performed regularly at the Get Me High Lounge. For more of his story and the history of poetry slams check out this link:

As usual there will be more to spit at ya!


  1. That's funny that yesterday I randomly quoted Taylor Mali and here I am today, reading your blog, and you [also] find him inspirational.

    I'd like to watch/hear you perform (or not perform) some slam poetry. Anytime soon?

  2. Armstrong has open mics that I do sometimes. I used to go to Tantra on Wednesdays, but haven't been in over a year so I don't know if they do it anymore. I should look into to places around town.

  3. Sentient Bean used to have open mic nights a few years ago; they might still.

  4. I checked them out last semester and it was defunct because the woman who ran them moved away. They kept saying they'd start it up again, but after three tries I never went back to find out.