Word - Monkey Slam
Competition runs high at Atlanta's poetry slam finals
The patio at Java Monkey was packed way past capacity last Sunday. More than 100 people crowded in and a dozen or so squeezed out onto the sidewalk, their faces peering over or through the fence like street waifs at a construction site. It was a diverse crowd, even for the popular Decatur cafe: dreadlocked punks and bohemians, braided earth mothers, sensibly dressed matrons, high style hip-hop men, middle-aged runners in T-shirts and baseball caps. And the crazy thing about it was that this crush of buzzing humanity had overrun the patio to hear poetry.??
Not just any poetry, of course. Slam poetry. The "SportsCenter" friendly, crowd-pleasing, highly competitive gladiator grudge match of the spoken word community. Complete with a panel of judges picked from the audience, complex scoring rules, elimination rounds and a (small) cash purse. "It's definitely a performance thing," said Kodac Harrison, the musician, spoken word poet and all-around big-haired beatnik who hosts the event. "It's not something you can contemplate for an hour. It's got to make an immediate impact."
This was also not just any slam. These were the Atlanta slam finals, to pick the team Atlanta will send to Albuquerque in August for the National Poetry Slam. (The team is sponsored by Poetry Atlanta, the community involvement wing of the Atlanta Review.) Since last October, Harrison has hosted monthly slams at Java Monkey as part of his otherwise weekly open-mic night, Java Monkey Speaks. The top two poets from each slam were invited back for the finals.
The origins of slam poetry can be traced to a Chicago jazz club in 1986. Construction worker and poet Marc Smith wanted to enliven the often tight-assed world of poetry by getting the audience more actively involved. The success of that goal was keenly apparent at Java Monkey.
"What the fuck!" protested a man in the audience when poet Ruppert Fike's scores weren't as high as he thought they should be.
"Come on girl, bring it!" shouted a woman from the audience as Adriana Chiknas took the stage. A large woman in a little black dress and chunky black leather boots, Chiknas performed a piece on her struggle to get thin only to finally embrace her "skin filled with nice things like marshmallows and cinnamon rings." The crowd cheered for her, shouting out and clapping, then booed when some of the judges gave their scores.
Bryan Pattillo, his butt-length dreadlocks swinging and flying, riffed on the clichéd forms of spoken word. "Let me write about how wide my third eye is open ... with ... a ... dramatic ... pause ... between ... each ... word." Or maybe "a poem about sex ... I am so original." He fired off a half-dozen or so "I am" lines, then devolved into an infinitely absorbed "I I I I I I I ... ." He even skewered himself: "I'm sitting up here reciting a poem about poetry, and that's not exactly unexplored territory." Pattillo was rewarded with a roaring cheer. The judges agreed, giving Pattillo what would have been the highest score of the evening but for a small penalty assessed for going over the three-minute time limit.
The competition was heating up. Veteran slammer Jon Goode performed a piece about declining the dance club advances of a woman who, once rejected, "pushed up her fake tits, flipped back her fake ponytail. Then she gave me the finger with her fake fingernail."
Basic Knowledge performed a brilliant and hilarious piece about bill collectors, weaving Julie Andrews and Dr. Seuss into poverty and the credit noose. "Dough, the money that I don't have ... Ti, the herb that look like weed." Later, working off "Green Eggs and Ham": "Oh no, mister repo man, you will not take my minivan." Tavares Stephens prophesied about messages sent to us in spinning pulsars that are being intercepted by satellites and replaced with subliminal urgencies for blood and oil. Sounding like a voice you'd expect to hear on a mountain, he told creation stories and primal myths.
After three rounds, the scores were tabulated, and Harrison announced the team: The champion, Reggie "Sky" Walker, Goode, Stephens, Pattillo, and alternate Basic Knowledge.
Afterward, on the sidewalk, former two-time Southeastern Regional Slam champion Ayodele Heath reflected on how the team would be perceived at nationals. Atlanta has a reputation for a strong spoken word scene, but it's often assumed to be limited to the hip-hop style. According to Heath, the other teams will be wondering: "Will they sound like Goodie Mob and OutKast? And these guys don't."
While both Heath and Harrison were disappointed that no women made it to the team, they were otherwise pleased with the team's mix of voices. "I think that this team does a good job of representing what Atlanta is becoming," Heath said.