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History of the Kalamazoo Poetry Slam

(This article was first published in the Kalamazoo Guide Magazine, October 2004)

A brief hush fills the room as the competitor finishes and bows gratefully to the audience. Then the thunder of applause rolls in like a sudden summer storm; the judges hold up their score cards, . . . 6.7… 8.2… 9.1. Some members of the audience boo the low scores while everyone cheers the high ones. Then a hush falls over the room once again as the next competitor takes her place. These competitors are not figure skaters or high divers or gymnasts, they’re poets. The judges are not highly qualified experts, they’re average men and women whose only qualifications are being there. Sound a little bit strange? Welcome to the world of slam poetry, where letters and performance art merge, where literature meets game show, where poets compete against one another while sharing their joys, sadness, fears, and laughter, with an appreciative crowd of rowdy strangers.

In 1984 a former Chicago construction worker turned poet, Marc Smith, got tired of the stuffy academic poetry readings and lackluster open-mic nights, where poets sat around with their noses buried in notebooks reading to handfuls of other poets. He wanted poetry with some life to it, poetry that sang, poetry that danced, poetry that wasn’t afraid to jump up on a table top and howl at the moon. He decided to add an element of competition to the poetry and to let the audience choose what was good or bad instead of relying on the so-called experts to tell them. Little did Marc know at the time but what he invented in that smoky Chicago night club would become the vanguard of a spoken word revolution that would revive the art of poetry, making it even more popular than the Beat Poets of the previous generation. Twenty years later there are over one hundred certified poetry slams across the U.S. and Canada, (including Alaska and Hawaii) as well as slams in Germany, Great Britain, France, Denmark, Switzerland, and Singapore.

Poetry Slam first came to Kalamazoo in the spring of 1998 after local poet and open-mic host Tracey Smith (no relation to Marc Smith) stumbled across a documentary film entitled Slam Nation, which chronicled the 1996 National Poetry Slam (NPS) in Portland Oregon. Tracey was inspired to bring this exciting form of performance oriented poetry back to Kalamazoo and share it with the small community of poets who once frequented Dirty’s Outhouse Poets’ Café before it closed its doors in early 1998. The new Kalamazoo Poetry Slam soon found a home at Kraftbrau Brewery in downtown Kalamazoo, where that once small community of poets continued to thrive and grow for eight years.

The Kalamazoo Poetry Slam has gained a reputation of excellence in both writing and performance among poetry slam communities worldwide. Each year in April the best local slam poets compete for the opportunity to represent Kalamazoo at the National Poetry Slam (NPS), the world’s largest team poetry competition and festival. Kalamazoo has twice made it to the National semi-finals in 1999 and 2000.

In 2001 three time Kalamazoo Slam Team member Dawn Saylor was featured on HBO’s Rustle Simmons Presents: Def Poetry. Now in its fourth season, Def Poetry has featured many slam poets from around the country and in 2003 the critically acclaimed series spawned the Tony Award winning Def Poets On Broadway. Dawn Saylor made her second appearance in Def Poetry’s fourth season and dedicated her performance to “All my friends back in Kalamazoo.” Dawn currently lives in Brooklyn New York and is a co-manager of the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan. Every six months or so she returns to Kalamazoo to visit old friends and perform to packed houses at the poetry slam.

In 2002 Kalamazoo became one of the founding members of the Midwest Poetry Slam League (MPSL). Another brainchild of slam founder Marc Smith, the Slam League is a loose affiliation of slams throughout the Midwest who travel to one another’s venues to compete for the sheer joy of performing poetry. The rules of the Slam League are less stringent than those of the NPS. At the league slams poets have different time limits and may incorporate music, props, or costumes in a kind of poetic free for all. Kalamazoo’s MPSL team, The Kerfuffles, won the MPSL championship in Iowa City in 2003 and hosted the championship at Kraftbrau Brewery in 2004.

In 2003 two time Kalamazoo Slam Team member, Elizabeth Bullmer, placed 9th at the individual World Poetry Slam (iWPS) held in Greenville South Carolina. The iWPS is a new slam competition open to poets from all around the world. It was founded by Poetry Slam Inc, the non-profit organization that administrated the team oriented National Poetry Slam.

The Kalamazoo Poetry Slam is now headed into its 8th season with no end in sight. In 2004 Tracey Smith re-established the Kalamazoo Youth Slam on the first Sunday of each month at the Rocket Star Café by WMU’s campus. The goal of the Youth Slam is to introduce young people, who’s parents don’t want them hanging out at a brewery past 9 o’clock on a school night, to the art of performance poetry. Kraftbrau Brewery still plays host to the regular Kalamazoo Poetry Slam on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month, where besides the wealth of talented local poets, you can see some of the best performance poets from around the nation. National slam champions, Reggie Gibson, Shane Koyzan, Celina Glen, Buddy Wakefield, Monica Copland, Becky Austin and Blair are but a few who have graced Kraftbrau’s stage in recent years. Even slam founder Marc Smith has guest hosted one of Kalamazoo’s semi-final competitions.

Behold, a Dark Horse

(This article was written for the Kzoo Newsletter after the 2000 Kzoo Slam Team went to the semi-finals at the National Poetry Slam in Providence RI)

In a cramped cinder block dorm room they gather. The air is thick with beer, sweat and smoke. Two large bellied white guys are belting out Black Sabbath lyrics at the tops of their lungs, and nobody seems to mind. It’s not a weekend kegger at WMU, and it’s not a movie trailer for Animal House Y2K. It’s the after hours party following the first bout of the National Poetry Slam in Providence, Rhode Island and everyone who’s anyone is crammed into this little room to pay their respects to "Kalama-who?" "Kalama-fucking-zoo" screams Wammo, one of the big bellied white guys. A hard rocking, hard drinking, hard headed Texas poet who took second place in the individual competition at the 1996 National Poetry Slam, a guy so cool he’s only got one name. And after his stirring rendition of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” he pulls a rumpled note pad from his back pocket and announces, “I have a poem, for Dawn and Ben.” Everyone is quiet as his verse unfolds the story of how two poets moved him with their words and how he is not worthy to be among them.

Earlier that evening the Kalamazoo Poetry Slam Team competed against three of the toughest teams in the nation: Albuquerque, New Mexico, Atlanta, Georgia and Hollywood, California. At the end of the bout the dark horse team from Kalamazoo and Team Hollywood had defeated Albuquerque and Atlanta but tied for first place. After a tense and suspenseful rules debate, Kalamazoo and Hollywood went at it for one more round. Hollywood came out on top by 0.1 of a point, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind after that: Kalamazoo had rolled into town ready to kick ass and take names.

Night two was no less challenging: Kzoo faced a tough but friendly rival in Dallas, Texas. Two of Dallas’ poets had been on the 2nd place 1998 team, and two familiar faces, Jason Carney and Tara Seth, had blown the roof off of Kraftbrau when they featured at our slam in March, so we knew what we were up against. We stole the first round from Jason Carney with a team piece written by Beth Bullmer. Karrie and Dan kept them on the ropes for the next two rounds, but they slipped by us in the end, when GNO (pronounced Gee-Know), another guy so cool he only has one name, pulled out an intensely humorous but poignant poem about being pulled over by the police for “driving while black.”

Although we had not taken first place either night, our scores where so high that everyone assured us that we would be in the semi-finals. They were also asking us with stunned amazement, “How many of those team pieces do you guys have?” In fact, we were asked that question so many times, it inspired the team to go back to the dorm and make up a brand new team piece for semi-finals. It was decided that Dan Stevens' “No Fuckin’ Poets” would work well in four voices and provide the perfect sarcastic but good natured conclusion to our performance in Providence. The team learned it in less than a day and took second place to the poetry Juggernauts from New York’s Union Square, who were eventually defeated in the finals by New York’s Team Urbana.

In a cramped cinder block dorm room they gathered. The air was thick with beer, sweat and smoke. Two large bellied white guys belt out the theme from "Cheers" at the tops of their lungs, and nobody seems to mind. It’s the after hours party following finals of the National Poetry Slam in Providence, Rhode Island, and everyone who’s anyone is crammed into this little room to pay their respects to “Kalama-fucking-zoo.” Our dark horse days are over: they know our names, fear our slam scores, and covet our beer. Congratulations, Beth, Dan, Dawn and Karrie for a job very well done.

National Poetry Slam 2001: Breaking the Curse

(This article was written for the Kzoo Newsletter after the 2001 Kzoo Slam Team beat New York City in the first round of the National Poetry Slam in Seattle WA)

In August 1998, in an over crowded coffee shop in Austin TX, the first Kalamazoo Slam Team faced its baptism of fire against the slam teams from Hollywood CA. and the world famous Nuyorican Poet’s Café in New York City. It was a little intimidating to say the least. There was no air conditioning; it was 103 degrees. We lost that bout by 9 points. I remember this because the score board was displayed world wide, thanks to the CNN camera crew who were there shooting an Entertainment Weekly piece focusing on the New York Team.

It was at the 1999 slam that we began referring to “THE NEW YORK CURSE” when we had to faced the Nuyoricans in the preliminaries and BOTH the Nuyorican and New York City’s- Union Square team in the semi-finals. In all, Kalamazoo has had to slam against New York City in six out of ten of our National’s bouts.

When you slam against New York, you’re not only competing against some of the most polished and professional performance poet in the country, you’re also competing against the reputation and mystique of the city itself, not to mention a full house of slam fans who are expecting NYC to kick everyone’s ass. At least that’s how it used to be, until a few weeks ago when Team Kalamazoo beat NYC for the first time!

Kalamazoo pulled out all the stops in it’s first preliminary bout against NYC-Union Square, Atlanta, and Denver. Karrie Waarala out scored NYC’s leadoff poet, Roger Bonaire Agar (the 1999 Individual National Champion) From then on it was all out war. Team Kalamazoo, who spent 10 hard weeks practicing and performing in preparation for Nationals, pulled out 3 of their 5 team pieces (poems that are performed by more than one poet) to topple the east coast juggernaut. In round two, the whole team performed Dan Steven’s poem “Fear God” eliciting both gasps and applause from the audience and the opposing teams. Dawn Saylor conjured teary eyes and gapping jaws with “Isis”, a deeply moving feminist anthem performed with Karrie Waarala as a duet in round 3. That turned out to be the apex of dramatic poems for the evening, as far as the judges where concerned. Kalamazoo’s victory over New York was clinched in the fourth round by National Slam rookie James Dixon, who’s up beat and over the top poem “Raw Reality” (aka. “The Quickie”) brought a little sexy levity and ended the bout on an up note of raucous laughter and applause. Team NYC were gracious in their defeat and Team Kalamazoo earned much love and respect from the national slam community. Congratulations Kzoo.