Slam poetry cut and paste from Alaska

Fresh faces slam it out in poetry competition
TAKE A SEAT: Performers have three minutes to stay in the game.

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: November 19, 2004)

Emil Churchin performs as political comedian Bill Hicks in the "dead poet" division of the Classic Slam at the Fly by Night Club. The event was presented by the Alaska Poetry League. "A lot of slam poetry is stand-up comedy," Churchin said. (Photo by Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)


Kim Barrett scores a performer in the dead poet division of the Classic Slam at the Fly by Night Club. (Photo by Marc Lester / Anchorage Dailly News)


Click on photo to enlarge
Tuesday night's Classic Slam at the Fly by Night Club saw poetry diva Corinna Delgado shot down after reading a poem she finished at her table, while Angela Ramirez won the "live poet" division with the material that earned her second place a year ago.

Fresh faces from a slam class at the University of Alaska Anchorage competed in their first real slam, ousting previous winners.

Jazzed from adrenaline, poets presented their own work in the "live poet" category or the work of others, for the most part, in the dead poet category. Performers had three minutes to woo the crowd and judges and avoid elimination.

Throughout the night, the "celebrity" judges -- including a store owner, a handyman extraordinaire, a reporter, an actor and a biologist -- held up scores ranging from 6 to 9 using criteria known only to them.

The dead and not-so-dead poets started the evening, with Emil Churchin performing as political comedian Bill Hicks.

"A lot of slam poetry is stand-up comedy," said Churchin, winner of last fall's Classic Slam. "That's my justification. Plus (Hicks) has a lot of timely things to say." A member of the slam team that Alaska sent to nationals, Churchin said he prefers channeling the deceased.

"I always have more fun being a dead poet than doing my own material," Churchin said. He once performed soliloquies from Hamlet, losing in the final round to a woman named Pillow who recited in Klingon.

"Slams are great," said Wendy Withrow, who has performed at Classic Slams as Mister Rogers, Bob Marley and Marge Piercy. "All kinds of people turn out to listen to poetry and greatly enjoy the experience. It's so different from a poetry reading, which is quiet and formal and draws only a certain small, elite audience."

Withrow's favorite dead poet moment from Classic Slams past was Anne Reddig's portrayal of Sylvia Plath. In her performance, Reddig popped pills, drank, put a cardboard "oven" over her head and collapsed onstage.

On Tuesday, Withrow donned a trash bag, a cardboard keyboard and a monitor box as a hat to represent Spamma Wamma, reciting a "conglomeration of subject lines gleaned from the glut of e-mail spam."

Audience members chuckled at something they would quickly have deleted if they had been staring into their computer screens at home. Withrow's found poems went from ridiculous to poignant, from "shoe diaper imbalance" to "summer romance on a shoestring."

B. Hutton, who has performed at Classic Slams as Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Waits, played himself Tuesday. Commenting on the years when the Alaska Poetry League focused on sending a team to national competitions, he said: "The energy generated locally was phenomenal, spawning so many new spoken-word talents and new venues I couldn't keep up with them all. ... On the other hand, there was some sacrifice of local flavor and flexibility to meet what were seen as the competitive demands. ...

"We got extremely point-conscious in performance, and the hand-wringing in the parking lot at Whitekeys' (after someone received a poor score) often seemed a little bizarre (given that) the writer had put out one of the best pieces of work they had ever performed."

Hutton read his own poem in the dead poet category as a way of tweaking the genre, he said. He wanted to use props and play, but the point system kept him from amusing the audience in the second round.

"I hate the competition aspect of it," said S. Preston Chase, who, as Henry Miller, described the good, the bad and the ugly sides of sex and civilization. The audience didn't know whether to laugh or gasp as he thrust, literally and figuratively, through his selection from Miller's crude, screeching, bloody, fornicating oeuvre.

"I hate slams. I hate the three-minute limit. Other than that it's OK. ... It's terribly exciting to get up there. Just is. And of course, I dread it." He placed third.

As Allen Ginsberg, Mike Christenson won second place in the dead poet category by speaking to America about its machinery and gluttony.

As slam legend Taylor Mali, Mitch Laird -- appearing in his first slam -- parlayed his portrayal of the slam champion into a win. Laird, one of the few performing without notes, lost his place in the first poem, but the pause fit: The piece was about how the collective "we" don't have convictions. Strong delivery and quality in the final poems garnered enough points to keep Laird in the lead in a close race.

In the live poet category, newbies with weak deliveries got second chances, while heavy favorite Delgado, who placed seventh in the National Competition, missed advancement by a fraction, joining fellow slam veteran Kima Hamilton on the sidelines for round two.

Hamilton, who performs his own work because he appreciates "being the person bringing it from paper to stage," understands the need for competitive slams. He has a poem about his grandmother that just can't be scored, but "without this venue audiences wouldn't hear it."

Before Tuesday's slam, Hamilton worried that his poems about a divorce and his soon-to-be ex-wife would offend and make enemies.

"As an artist, I have to document. I have to be honest. Every time I pick up a pen, it's about that situation. ... I could write something else, but it'd be a lollipop poem. With these, I could start crying."

Taking third place in the live poet category, Jason Marvel looked like he stepped out of an Old Navy ad yet began with a line about a "howling naked street." His style conformed to the tradition of the slam rant, complete with comments on equality, teaching and fathers.

Michael Shaeffer won second place. He tickled audiences with his renditions of Jack and the Beanstalk, "Oklahoma!" and "The Simpsons."

"I'll make a fool of myself in the interests of competition," he said.

Ramirez, who won the live poet division, and Jackie Carr started the night with a combo piece about former roommates, complete with sound effects. Ramirez also told tales of racism, horses and a shrine to a one-night stand.

Hawkins Wright, underage and able to attend only because his parents were present, struggled to deliver his work. But getting it out, he pleased audience members so much they gave him the People's Choice Award. He also enraptured the judges enough with his piece on why few men are nurses that he qualified for the second round.

"Not every man can watch someone cry" or hold a woman's hand as she wants to die, he told the crowd.

In an interview before the event, Linda Billington, a past winner of the dead poet category who was unable to compete Tuesday, summed up the appeal of the Classic Slam: "People reveal (the) truth of humanity, then others reveal truths of the human heart, (all) filtered through someone else. With a costume."


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