Sunday, December 11, 2016

Call and Response

The Twin Cities of Spoken Word and Slam Poetry

At downtown St. Paul’s Artists’ Quarter on September 13, the first poetry slam of the season, during which poets compete to become part of the St. Paul Soap Boxing team, packs the room with mostly young white poets and their friends. Among the poems in the first round, few pieces with a political message were performed: one poem about the apathy of today’s generation, a piece about having to turn away homeless people from a shelter and DeMulder’s poem “Catcall: The Word Bitch Is a Weapon”:

Her skin looks so soft,
the way dusk holds the earth in its mouth.
I am carrying orange juice and she is carrying
her body like an overripe comet. I hear them,
howling like babies breastfed on sugar. It is a hot day
and they are starving and she is the sweetest Popsicle
in sight. Tell me how does all that ass fit inside that dress.
Damn girl look at those thighs, I can smell your pussy
from here.

The crowd murmurs of “Mmhmms” and an errant “damn” while DeMulder performs. Cheers and applause accompany high scores of approval from the evening’s judges. Later that evening, Hawley performs “Wile E. Coyote,” now a familiar favorite among the regular attendees in the crowd. They snap and holler with his utterance of the first words of the poem. He goes on to receive some of the highest scores of the night and receives first place for that evening’s slam. DeMulder, although advancing to past the first round and scoring high, is not among the top three poets that night. She does, however, take first place at the October’s slam competition.

A 2009 performance of DeMulder’s “Paper Dolls”:

Ed Bok Lee recalls greater cultural diversity in the early days of Twin Cities slam. The activist agenda of much of the poetry was more transparent, with subversion coloring the tone of voices of dissent. Poets who were slamming in the late 90s, including Desdamona, Lee, Robert Karimi, Truth Maze and Bao Phi, no longer slam but identify as part of the spoken word community as performance poets or hip-hop artists.

Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre said that when he first started on the slam scene in 2007, “The Twin Cities style, it was not very political and it was very like, ‘My girlfriend left me. I’m very sad. I drink too much.’ It was very white, it still is very white. It’s very male dominated, it’s still very male dominated. But, I think they’re growing, and I think that’s a really positive thing. Growing in terms of all forms of diversity.”

Today, themes of cultural difference and identity are more likely to be explored at venues specifically created as a safe space for underprivileged voices, such as the Asian Pacific Islander or African diaspora open mics, featured as sideline events during the National Poetry Slam. Cole Sarar created the all-women’s Punch Out Poetry slam to support female poets as a response to the need to take gender out of the equation during competitions and foster the voices of female poets.The Loft Literary Center’s Equilibrium (EQ) spoken word series, which curator Bao Phi created as a space for poets of color to gather and receive support for their work. Diversity has also been dissected and celebrated in other EQ programming such as the Adoptee Showcase, Vietnamese women’s spoken word and hip hop show and the Queer Asian American Spoken Word show. EQ won the 2010 Minnesota Nonprofit Award for Anti-Racism Initiative and will host the annual  Asian Pacific Islander American Spoken Word and Poetry Summit, which will be held in St. Paul in the summer of 2011.

Steph Pituc is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota.