Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Verse Versus Verse

By Jim Hanas

JANUARY 26, 1998: 

Midtown Memphis poetry kids are born burned-out, stuck / waist deep like corpses in red river mud / in a city of blood and history, / burned-out buildings, burned-out bums, blues / and bruises as broad as the Mississippi.

– from “Burnt”

He’s in his late teens, early twenties – just a guess. His hair is ultra-short, like his head’s been shaved a month or so ago. His wiry frame is hidden somewhere inside an oversized black T-shirt and huge blue jeans. Just another rave kid, one would guess.

It’s a Sunday night late last year at the P&H Cafe, the site of the Original Memphis Can-O-Whoop-Ass Poetry Slam on the second Sunday of every month. A small crowd has gathered to judge, be judged, or just watch.

There are a few rules: Poems can’t be over three minutes long. Poets can’t use props. The high and low scores from the five judges are thrown out. Three poetsadvance to the final round, and one wins.

And there are prizes: $10 for first. $10 for last. Second place takes out the trash.

This monthly event used to be held at the Coffee Cellar until the university-area coffeehouse closed last year, when it was moved to the P&H and beyond. Master Bakers in Overton Square hosts a slam every Friday, and other readings that have cropped up around town. Whether it’s Thursdays at Java Cabana, Mondays at Black Diamond on Beale, or Wednesdays at the Map Room, there’s hardly a night of the week that you can’t go out and see spoken-word poetry.

But slam is unique, and maybe even a contradiction, pulling its participants in two directions at once. Thom Holcomb, the organizer of Memphis’ slam events, describes the contradiction as “the tension between slam and poetry as an art.” On the one hand, you’re being judged, so you need to shoot for the lowest common denominator and appeal to the widest possible audience. On the other hand, it’s poetry, where popularity has rarely corresponded with aesthetic virtue.

Photo by Roy Cajero

The idea for informal poetry competitions is thought to have originated in Chicago sometime in the Eighties, and has since spread to the coasts and into the South. The Coffee Cellar slam started a little over a year ago and it’s gained in popularity ever since. There’s a core of diehard slammers, but rarely does an event go by where there aren’t at least a few newcomers. The crowd at Master Bakers usually ranges from 30 to 50 people, and not necessarily the people you would think. While the bulk of those in attendance are angst-caked kids and listless bohemians, there are also lawyers and real estate agents among the faithful.

Cynical expectations will be partially borne out on any given night, as there are sure to be some fairly rank offerings. Some would soil a greeting card. Some should have been kept between a diary’s locked pages. More common, however, are tediously undisciplined streams of consciousness awash in the “big ideas” – universe, infinity, soul – that no one understands beyond the fact that they’re the business of poetry.

Everyone I know is scared of America. / Rich people are scared of poor people / with grimy loosechange palms and knifeblade fingers shining in back alleys.

– from “Clearout”

And then there’s the kid with the shaved head, black T-shirt, and baggy jeans that night at the P&H Cafe. Pacing back and forth before the audience – part preacher, part hip-hop MC – he performs a poem called “Clearout” about how everyone is scared of America. “Poor people are scared of rich people flashing perfect teeth smiles over deals that treat poor people like the broken parts in a machine,” he says, and on like that, to a climactic scene of a basketball game going down to the buzzer as a fight breaks out in the crowd. You had to be there, of course, but it was a great poem by every standard that matters, and seeing it for the first time was something else, the best three-minute rock concert I’ve ever seen.

It wasn’t until a month later that I found out that the kid was Daniel Roop, the founder of Memphis Poetry Slam. He’s left town since then, and the latest issue of the Memphis Poetry 40 oz., a newsletter founded by him and continued by Holcomb, is dedicated to his work. In it Holcomb declares Roop Memphis slam’s “superhero.”

But, on any give night, there’s the possibility of other poems like that and other moments like that, there, amid the thinly veiled journal entries and the directionless rants. And sometimes they happen. As slam continues to grow, they can only happen more often.

Midtown Memphis poetry kids are beginning to shuffle outside, / are beginning to bandage their burns and scars with words, / spinning cocoons and kisses around / each other’s bodies. They are young, / their methods are as clumsy as sex, / and ultimately, as rewarding.

– from “Burnt”

(All excerpts from poems by Daniel Roop. For the full texts, go to the e-zine version of burnt: an anthology of memphis slam poetry, http://www.geocities.com/soho/9897.)

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