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Watch out Russell Simmons

Different rules, different goals and only occasionally stepping on toes, two poetry slam groups are slammin'.



Located on opposite ends of the city, Slam Richmond and Just Poetry have more performers in common than they do audience members. The Just Poetry Slam is associated with the James River Writers but has no national affiliates, so it's able to create its own rules — most significantly, no age requirement.

Born in April 2004 on the second floor of Café Gutenberg, the Just Poetry Slam was the brainchild of poet and University of Richmond adjunct acting professor D.L. Hopkins, James River Writers board member and author Phaedra Hise, and poet Gwendolyn Nixon.

Because of a growing crowd, the Slam moved to the Firehouse Theatre at the end of 2004, at the suggestion of Firehouse's co-founder, Harry Kollatz. It also receives technical support from the local theater and film nonprofit Yellow House, which is closely aligned with Firehouse. Each Just Poetry season has culminated in a Grand Slam that selects the year's ultimate winner and dovetails with the James River Writers Conference in October.

"I don't care if you're blind, crippled or crazy," Hopkins says. "If you sign up, you get your time." Just Poetry is still competitive — poets go after a $100 pot — but unlike Slam Richmond, Hopkins says, they don't feel like the reputation of their city can hang in the balance of an individual performance.

As the emcee, Hopkins works hard to attract a younger crowd. "I want to help young people develop their voice — someone did it for me," he says. "It's important that a kid who doesn't dribble a ball or have a record contract, but has talent, has a place to go." Hopkins has recently met with Richmond Public Schools and is working toward the formation of an interschool slam.

T.S. Prunier, winner of the Just Poetry Slam in November, started Slam Richmond four months later. His group is a branch of Poetry Slam Inc., an organization for poets run by poets, linking an intricate web of slams all over the United States as well as in Canada, France and Germany. Each venue must comply with particular rules in order to send a team to nationals. Participants must be 18 years old or older; each poem can be no longer than three minutes (with a 10-second grace period); and poems must be original. There can be no props, music or any other such accoutrement. Scores are averaged from the middle three scores of five judges on a scale of 1 to 10.

Richmond's first slam team — made up of Lee "Narrator" Jones III, Iman Shabazz, Jeff "Nazdak" Marlow, Daniel CustodiĀ¢, Rasul "The Nobody" Elder and alternate Lance Kelley Lane — went to the national competition in Austin, Texas, in August, placing 47th out of 73 teams. Prunier says that the competition was organized much like a golf tournament, and that for first-timers, the Slam Richmond team was satisfied with its results.

Prunier, slam master and spoken-word representative on the executive committee of the Poetry Society of Virginia, says that Richmond's team has a lot of positive energy, and as its second season starts, members hope to pump excitement into the poetry community at large. Prunier also intends to form a cooperative to help wrangle the many bureaucratic tasks required to keep Slam Richmond up and running.

When Slam Richmond and Just Poetry's schedules overlapped in June, tempers flared and angry missives were fired across computer screens, causing a momentary rift between the two groups that has since been mended. Prunier says this scheduling snafu was one of the normal growing pains of an expanding poetry community. "The best part of what happened was there were several poetry events going on," he says, "and that's a good problem to have."

Shann Palmer, a member of the Poetry Society of Virginia who helped bring financial support to Slam Richmond, seems to agree: "I think some people have tried to make factions, but they have failed, because in the end, it's not about the people or the prizes, it's about the poetry." S

Slam Richmond "Season Too" kicks off on Sept. 18 at ComedySportz Improv Theatre, 7115-a Staples Mill Road, at 8 p.m. Admission is $5. It continues every first and third Monday through July.

The third annual Just Poetry Grand Slam will be held on Monday, Oct. 23, at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., and will continue the last Monday of every month at 8 p.m. Admission is free.

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