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War of the Words

Richmond's slam poets battle it out.


The brainchild of a construction worker-poet named Mark Smith, the first-ever poetry slam was held in Chicago in August 1986 and has since become an international pastime. Making it to Richmond's Café Gutenberg as a monthly event in April 2004, under the sponsorship of the James River Writer's Festival, the Just! Poetry Slam has reached heights of overwhelming popularity. With the café packed to capacity, management, has had to turn away eager audience members in order to adhere to fire safety codes.

"People have this idea that we're going to have turtlenecks on and some freak's gonna be playing bongos in the corner." Hopkins says. "But when they come, they're very, very surprised. The beautiful thing about the event is the diversity of the poets. Each month we get a different group of people mixed up together. It really balances the night. It opens up this genre of art to many different people." The most successful poets in the slam seem to transform their poems into action.

"The performance is a monologue breathing life into ideas," says Rasul "The Nobody" Elder, who tied for second in the August competition.

While delivery and performance of the poems pack a powerful punch, there is no evading the potent impact of the written word. S. Ross Browne, first place winner of July's slam and a professional artist/poet, emphasizes the importance of "connecting the spoken word with the written to maintain a poetic verisimilitude. When you read a poem, you enjoy a certain intimacy with the words, with the syntax, the pentameters, the cadence and rhythm of the structure of the poem."

T.J. Natole, who won first place in the August slam, and who competes for the No. 5-ranked State University of New York at Oneonta poetry slam team, says, "If poetry and hip-hop were to have a kid, it would be named slam."

"However this is only one sliver of the slam," he says. "The poetry slam is a sacred ground for shared experiences. It's a place where political activists, drunks, the abused and battered, comedians, the religious, the sublime, the ugly and the wild all get together to show that in all life's differences, the similarities are what should be focused on." After winning the title at Gutenberg's August slam, Natole used his prize money to buy the rest of the night's competitors a round of drinks.

Not all of the poets are professionals, nor have they all performed their poetry at a competitive level. "Poetry slams are new to me," says Ann Shalaski who has travelled for two of the slams from Newport News. "Then I went to a poetry slam at Café Gutenberg, watched and listened, and I was hooked." On her second visit, Shalaski competed and placed third. "I think they call it beginner's luck," she says, "I call it fun, fun, fun."

The Grand Slam, a competition between previous slam winners, is scheduled to occur at the Farmer's Market on Monday, Sept. 27, at 8 p.m. in conjunction with Café Gutenberg and the James River Writer's Festival. Final slam contestants include T.J. Natole, Mariam "Mars" Lodin, Joseph Green, Gwendolyn Nixon, Alex Cena, S. Ross Browne, Ann Shalaski and Dorothy Marie Rice.

Steve Graca, part owner of the Gutenberg, reports there are plans to reopen the second floor of the café by the third or fourth week of September. Wine and beer will continue to be available, and food will be served from a scaled-down menu. Graca says they're getting a lot of volunteer help from their customer base in the lengthy restoration process. In light of the August flooding, Hopkins hopes the Grand Slam will serve as "a phoenix rising from the ashes" — or in this case, from the waters of the flood. S

After the Sept. 27 Grand Slam, the Just! Poetry Slam is scheduled to continue the last Thursday of every month at Café Gutenberg at 8 p.m.

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