Warning to non-Utahns: You’ve no doubt heard the rumors about Utah, and Salt Lake City. I’m not going to say they’re all false-the LDS church does have a big presence, but that doesn’t make all of the rumors true. You might have heard that Salt Lake City and the people therein are a God-fearing people who spend their Sundays in elaborate temples and then go door-to-door trying to sell their religion to the people who weren’t at Church.
Sure these people exist, but I’m going to tell you something. You may not believe it, but it’s more of a truth than the rumors you’ve come to believe.
Salt Lake City isn’t as backwards as you think.
Salt Lake is just as alive as other cities. We’ve got our bars. Our pubs. We’ve got a thriving LGBTIQ community. We’ve got vegans, activists, rebels, anarchists…
And we have a thriving community of slam poets who wield their words like daggers, slicing straight into the heart of anyone within hearing distance. And this week they’re one of 67 teams (both national and international) who plan to leave their mark on the 2009 National Poetry Slam.
Together they make up a team National Poetry Slam attendees won’t forget any time soon.
Jesse Parent may not have been born and raised in Utah, but he’s been involved with performance arts for a long time. He began with improv and soon developed a style known as “the hook” which combines improvised performance poetry, acapella music and scenework. He has been a staple of the Salt Lake slam teams since 2007 and has done work as a coach, slam master, and currently serves on the executive council of Poetry Slam, Inc.
Because of his beginnings in theater and improv art, poetry was far from easy. Jesse was “scared to death” of writing a poem and had to get over the improv mindset of art being little more than toilet paper: used once and then tossed. His style of poetry is comparable to an emotional rollercoaster. Jesse doesn’t want the audience to JUST laugh their way through his piece. Nor does he want them to get more and more miserable as his poem is presented. No, he’s got to have it both ways. Humor here, darkness there, a dash of discomfort, an anecdote to lighten the tone-you’ll know it’s a Jesse Parent poem if it takes you on an emotional journey you weren’t expecting.
His poetry tends towards confessional-based on real events he’s experienced and people he’s known. Take the poem “Gallow’s Humor.” It was written a few days after a friend of his died, burned to death at a 2003 Great White concert in the Station (Rhode Island). The poem captures Jesse’s ability to use both humor and grief in a poem, twisting it into something far more powerful than if it was just grief.
DeAnn is a relative newcomer to the Salt City Slam Team. This will be her first year at nationals, and yes, she’s worried. But anyone who has seen her in action at Baxters Open Mics on Saturdays could easily attest that she has no reason to be worried. DeAnn carries a confidence through her poetry that is only emphasized by gestures that punctuate each word she says with new meaning. Her poetry is intense, filled with metaphors and passion set to distinctive rhythms.
She has been writing poetry since middle school, and it shows in the expert way that she crafts her poems in narrative schemes. Though she isn’t sure what to expect at Nationals this week, she does look forward to the connections she will make with other poets. Partly because she and fellow poet/friend Cody Winger will be touring the West Coast, bringing their poetry to stages outside of Utah.
Is she concerned about the chances Salt City Slam has this week? No. As she said–“It’s more about the experience than the score,” reitterating Jesse’s belief that the scores don’t really matter. The scores are just a sneaky way to bring the art of poetry back to a wider audience.
Josh McGillis got into slam poetry via a youth workshop held by Westminster College and since then has stuck around. He participated in the 2008 slam team, and is back for another round this year. He isn’t as frequent a contributor to Saturdays at Baxters as the other slam members, but his performance poetry leaves an impression. Because I didn’t get a chance to talk to him personally, I’ll have to let him do the talking (thanks to getstakerized for the video.)
Michael Dimitri: It’s Saturday night at Baxters. Open Mic. The first round is already in progress when Michael Dimitri, coach of Salt City Slam ’09 arrives. But he still makes the first round. When he gets up to the mic, he’s barefoot. He steps away from the mic, almost reverently. Quiet. After a few seconds he steps forward and launches into the first poem of the night.
Though Michael ended up as team coach by accident (Jesse originally had the duties, but stepped back due to the difficulties of balancing his family life with all of his other interests), it’s not a surprise that he got the role. When Michael speaks, it’s hard NOT to listen. It’s hard not to follow the words, the emotions, the pictures he paints. His voice is powerful, dynamic and he makes a point to speak directly to the audience–eye contact and all.
Michael started writing poetry at the age of 7, and found himself immersed in the Salt Lake City slam poetry scene in 2004. He was introduced to slam by a friend at the old open mic location-Cup of Joe-and fell for slam immediately. There was an energy in the air he’d never seen before, and he found himself identifying with the words spoken by many of the poets. He started finding puzzle pieces in others words, and soon realized that he himself had puzzle pieces to offer, and stepped up to the mic.
Michael has participated in Nationals since ’04, sometimes as team member, sometimes as an observer. Like Jesse, Michael isn’t Utah born-and-bred. He’s toured with his poetry and seen other slam poetry venues, and is confident that SLC offers something many other cities can’t. In many venues he’s been to, poets would come up to the mic, speak their piece, and then leave. Here in Utah-that’s just not the way things work. Though there are a lot of regulars who show up at Baxter’s on Saturday and Mestizo Coffeehouse on Wednesdays, this is no clique. This is a group that’s about celebrating art, in whatever form it comes. It’s about welcoming any aspiring artists. Let’s say you’re a local Salt Lake poet and you decide, “it’s time to share my stuff.” I guarantee you’ll find no better place to find yourself embraced. (Remember: Wednesdays at Mestizo, Saturdays at Baxter’s-1615 S. State St; and Sundays at the Greenhouse Effect.)
When asked how the Salt City Slam team will do in West Palm Beach at Nationals Michael laughs, “I’m going to skip numbers altogether!” He maintains that the point of nationals is not about the scores. Salt Lake is one of 67 teams across the country, each of which have 5 members who’ve worked to develop their craft throughout the year in anticipation for this event. And winning, ultimately, isn’t the point. The point, as mentioned by all of the poets, is making a connection. Finding the people in the audience who felt a deep resounding connection with a line or verse of a poem. Something that makes them say “huh” with a new perspective on a question/situation that’s been bothering them or a new appreciation about something they’d begun to ignore.
Michael said that the experience of coaching has been an incredible one. “[The group is] competent, motivated, and their heads are in the right places.” And everyone, he added, is coming at this with their heart.
Cody Winger-in the sense of poetic delivery-is very much the opposite of Michael Dimitri. Where Michael’s poetry tends to soar and inspire, Cody’s style of performance is much more immediate, much more visceral. He will spit a poem while rocking to the invisible tune that seems to be coursing through his veins, waiting to get out. His movements are jagged, rough, and every bit as effective at bringing his words to life.
The poetry of Cody Winger is not easy to define. Dark, yet beautiful, with hope mixed in. Gritty. It’s the kind of poetry that can really dig under your skin, and at the same time, inspire.
Cody has always been a writer, though he didn’t get into poetry until his senior year of high school. His first exposure to slam poetry was through nationally reknowned poet Buddy Wakefield. After finding Buddy Wakefield, Cody began to get involved in the local slam scene at Cup of Joe and found inspiration through slam. This is his first year at Nationals, and he’s looking forward to having some fun, making some connections, and “bring[ing] poetry with integrity.”
Cody is a careful poet whose work is filled with deep constructive metaphors and circular flow. His process behind writing reflects that.
“I’m not a hands-on poet. I have to sit down and pull it out of me,” he explains. From the intitial writing, the poem goes through an intense revision process until he feels ready to share it and gauge the reaction of the audience. From there he looks at what the audience responds to, what works and doesn’t, and when he’s ready, the process of memorization begins. And after that comes the process of choreographing the gestures, the movements. And is a strong enough performer/poet to fool the audience into thinking everything they saw was seamless. Easy. Not the product of hours spent in memorizing/choreographing/workshopping.
It’s humbling to remember, that as much as he has developed through the Salt City Slam group, he was once a novice too, and was once intimidated by the local slam poets who had developed their styles and inspired him.
When asked what’s unique to the Salt City Slam Team, Cody answers “Our experience of living in Utah and not being Mormon.”
None of the slam poets are Mormon, and none of them fit into the stereotype people think of when they think of Utah. The Salt City Slam teams, throughout the years at Nationals, have had to deal with many of those attitudes. Michael noted that some judges, upon finding out that a poet was from Salt Lake, tend to stop listening. Some scored the individuals badly based on being Salt Lake City. All of the poets have seen this.
Since 2004 various Salt City Slam Teams have worked to combat the image of the Mormon stereotypes that are associated with SLC, and as they make more connections, those walls are starting to crumble. Michael is optimistic and believes things are getting much better.
West Palm Beach better watch out, because we sent some of the best of the Salt City Slam (some of the best? Yep, you heard me. Believe me when I say we’ve got more) your way. Be prepared. And don’t worry. We won’t bite.