Thursday, July 07, 2005 | Eloquent takes the stage. He looks calm and relaxed as he announces that he’s going to hit the audience with something political. Suddenly, he begins to “spit” a cappella, his body jerking slowly to the beat of his poetry. Rhymes come flying off his tongue like hornets, buzzing across the room, stinging and dangerous.
“Use 9/11 just to get you in the right mind,
The young MC, a native of Connecticut, traveled to San Diego recently to do the rounds of the city’s spoken word circuit. He discovered a scene that survives, simmering under the city’s mainstream, woven together by a hardcore group of enthusiasts and performers who come from all over the city to “spit” on small stages in city coffee shops and art centers.
At “Fertile Ground,” the recent evening’s open-mic night at the Hot Monkey Love Café in the College Area, Eloquent’s in-your-face hip-hop style was a far cry from the surrealism of the preceding act, poet Scott Perry, otherwise known as “Scotch.”
While Eloquent sported the baggy trousers and flat-cap uniform of a hip-hop MC, Scotch looked like the archetypal hipster with his buttoned-up dinner jacket, thrift-store shirt and faded jeans. In his reddish-blonde dreadlocks and flip flops, Scotch waxed lyrical about the dangers of pollution and the joys and treacheries of love. His poems – abstract in their composition and somewhat manic in their delivery – occasionally bordered on the absurd. At one point, the young poet raised his face to the rafters and began to sing in a shrill imitation of a children’s lullaby.
“Shush, little baby now, don’t say a word,
Sandra Boykin, the host of Fertile Ground, performs her poetry as “Blaque.” The enigmatic 22-year-old said she has been writing poetry since childhood, but only discovered spoken word performance about nine months ago. She started hosting the open mic night at the café shortly afterwards.
The first time Blaque read a poem onstage, she remembers she had to take off her shoes because her feet were sweating so profusely. Several months and scores of poems later, she now keeps her footwear on, and said the buzz she gets from performing is dizzying in its intensity.
“There’s nothing like it,” she said. “I love the stage. I absolutely love it, however I can take it, I love it. There’s not even a word to describe it.”
These days, Boykin uses her apprehension to intensify the experience of performing her poetry.
“It’s like this mixture of fear and excitement and this high,” she said. “You almost have to channel all that and put it into what you’re doing. That’s the challenge: channeling the nervousness and the being scared and the excitement and making it work with what you’re doing.”
Boykin’s words echo that of one of San Diego’s best known poets and performers, Michael Klam. Klam is a veteran of the city’s spoken word circuit. He said the hottest poetry night in town is probably the bi-weekly San Diego Poetry Slam held at Voz Alta, located at 16th Avenue and Broadway in downtown’s East Village. With the help of lubrication from Landlord Jim’s, a bar next door to the space, a crowd of MCs, poets, anarchists, musicians and all-round literary fun-havers raise the roof in a spectacle that Klam called “a free-speech free-for-all.”
Klam was one of a team of poets representing San Diego at the National Poetry Slam in 2002. He described slams as a more organized form of open mic with strict time limits and complex judging criteria. Wordsmiths are given three minutes to woo the audience and are judged by a panel comprised of seasoned professionals and absolute amateurs. Klam said laughter scores highly, as does any sort of emotional response from the crowd. Such a response, he said, is the reason most spoken word artists perform live.
“If you can move a room,” he said, “you can make them laugh, make them think. If you can get them involved, especially – get a reaction – then it’s pretty satisfying.”
But audience participation is not the only force driving the poets who brave the reactions of their peers to read their intimate stories and personal journals out loud. For James Johnson IV, a good-looking, soft-spoken 22-year-old, reading poetry is an outlet of self-expression that doesn’t come easily. He said writing and performing poetry is one way to quiet down the thoughts that constantly march through his head and often keep him from sleeping for days at a time.
“I use writing to cleanse my mind,” said Johnson. “You start to realize that words can be powerful. You can change somebody’s life with your words. I have a hard time talking, so putting it down on paper, what that allows me to do is be a bit more creative.”
Klam said that the words are not everything, however. Like any performance art, he said the poets need to infuse their words with expression. Rhythm, intonation, timing and inflection are all vital skills a spoken word poet must perfect if he is to win over the audience. Although some spoken word events may incorporate music, especially percussion, into performances, Klam said most open-mic events and slams are a cappella affairs, where the lyrical quality of the words must create its own music.
Boykin said that the overall result is that the audience becomes connected with a poet’s experience through the performance. She captured the essence of this in one of her poems, “Glisten.”
“Don’t just hear me – listen.
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For a listing of spoken word and other literary events in San Diego, visit: