These Voices Carry
For the last few years, Charlotte has been quietly nursing a slam poetry scene. And the nation—the world even—has begun taking notice
With only one person standing there, the stage in the McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square seems large and lonely. The audience of racially diverse and mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings occupies most of the lower seats with more still filing in. They wouldn’t look out of place at the Tremont or the Visulite.
Tall and slim with dreadlocks and soulful eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses, wearing a dark sport coat over a black T-shirt—picture Bob Marley as a college professor—Charles Perry Jr. on stage is a slow-forming maelstrom, opening deliberately and understatedly, winding up into a passionate whirlpool of words, cadence, and timbre that first lures, then yanks in the audience. At points, he speaks so fast without breathing that you’re sure he’ll pass out. At other times, you hang on to his last word, waiting anxiously to see where he’s going to go.
Some people wear marriage
Like medals of honor;
Divorce like court martials;
Failure like flags flown at half mask.
From a piece titled “Alamo,” his lyrics are full of military metaphor (more on that later). His voice rises and falls as his arms punctuate the air.
I’m not tired of being tired.
I’m tired of having this tired skin.
Carry bones so well that every time I step
Into grave yards, tombstones give me standing ovations.
Like American Idol, his performance will be judged tonight. But there’s no music here other than the sound of his voice. No instrument to hide behind, just a single microphone. For Perry, better known as C.P. Maze, is a poet and for this moment he sings alone. He ends with a seemingly defiant request, “Judges, come on and judge me.” And judge him they will—highly. Going second out of eleven poets who will compete in the monthly SlamCharlotte poetry slam this night, Maze reaps scores of 9.6, 9.9, and three perfect tens. The highest and lowest are dropped, and he is a lock for the next round with a near-perfect total of 29.9.
Since it was founded in 2003 by Terry Creech, SlamCharlotte has come a long way. Creech met Boris Rogers, the current Charlotte slam master known as Bluz (as in blues), when both were at UNC-Charlotte.
“One day I saw [Bluz] doing his poetry and it just blew me away so I started writing then,” says Creech, the former slam master who now works for the National Conference for Community and Justice while coaching a local high school slam team called Native Tongues. “I’ve always been a sports fanatic so slam’s kind of like the combination of sports and poetry,” Creech says. “When I found out about slam, it was like okay, I can get into this, and I started slamming at other slams around North Carolina because we didn’t have one here.”
The seeds planted by Creech have grown into something poets from other cities and towns envy. “Every poet who travels here says we have the dopest scene around,” says Maze. “That’s due to Kelly and Ann.”
He’s referring to Kelly Oyama and Ann Quagliato, the proprietors of Wine Up, a second-floor bar and club in NoDa.
All competitive teams have their home court, and for Charlotte’s competitive poets, that arena is Wine Up. The poets are celebrated here, with their photographs surrounding the performance space.
Open three years, Wine Up has championed poetry for two, says Oyama, a former top-ten professional billiards player. “That’s our main thing and we definitely identify with it.”
Thursday night shows at Wine Up are emceed by promoter and poet J.C. Cowan and feature about ten bards and a band. Tuesdays are open-mike nights with about twenty to twenty-five people taking a turn.
Long known for its visual arts and music, the area surrounding North Davidson and Thirty-sixth streets now gifts Charlotte with the definitive voice of spoken-word poets whose impact is not only local but national. With such colorful noms de plume as Bluz, Ocean, C.P. Maze, Da Minista, BLK Swan, and Q, they have established themselves and Charlotte as a force in national poetry-slam competitions. The city has placed as high as second.
“We’re like family, we all live here in the neighborhood,” notes Cowan, just before starting a Thursday night show. Cowan has been promoting performance poetry in Charlotte for about six years and says with a straight face, as if the pun escapes him, that the scene “was all built on word of mouth.”
There is no such thing as a
There is no such thing as an
And these are the paradoxical oxymoronic Twister spinners.
That has us so twisted that
Our poems don’t make any sense…to you…
Or any cents…for us.
As conveyed in those words by Tavis Brunson, the thirty-four-year-old known as Da Minista, most of Charlotte’s poets have other jobs to support their art, but a growing number of them are earning their way through their words, picking up a few dollars at club dates, selling CDs of their work, as performers for corporate and private events, and more often now in slams. Still, anywhere from four to seven of them share a NoDa residence affectionately named The Art House.
Poetry might be the last thing one would view as a competitive event, but consider the sharp-tongued flair of Muhammad Ali, who hurt Joe Frazier far more with his mouth than with his punches over the years. It’s quite probable that wordsmiths have been throwing it down for more than two millenniums. Some scholars would tell you that one of the first recorded poetry slam competitions included the Grecian bards Hesiod and Homer as far back as 700 B.C.
Supposedly, it was the Muses, daughters of Zeus, who gave Hesiod the gift of poetic inspiration while he was tending sheep one day. That blue-collar beginning is appropriate. Perhaps it was also the Muses who motivated a construction worker named Marc Smith to bring a competitive aspect to open-mike poetry readings in 1984 at a Chicago neighborhood jazz club unabashedly christened the Get Me High Lounge. It was there that the basic structure of an open-mike competition—three-minute limits, randomly selected judges, and picking a winner—was created.
Like the improvisational theater of Second City, slam poetry soon spread from Chicago to the rest of the country. The National Poetry Slam, the Super Bowl of the spoken word, now includes more than seventy teams and hundreds of poets from around the country. There’s also the Individual World Poetry Slam (IWPS), which was hosted by Charlotte in 2006 and featured seventy-two performers from twenty-five states and seven countries.
In mid-February, freshly back from testing their wit, wisdom, and wiles at the 2007 IWPS in Vancouver, Slam Charlotte team poets and their colleagues take to the McGlohon stage for the monthly competition.
After an opening set by feature poet Dasan Ahanu of Durham, slam master Bluz takes the stage. He banters a bit with the crowd. They aren’t quiet, nor are they expected to be. Even the other poets, sitting and standing offstage, chime in with witty barbs and inside jokes.
“The shenanigans, the heckling, the booing, that’s typical SlamCharlotte—it would be weird if we didn’t do it,” notes Bluz, who’s currently ranked thirteenth in the world by governing body Poetry Slam Inc. “That’s just the generosity that we show to each other. We respect each other when we’re actually doing the poem, but just before, we’re always trying to rattle each other. It’s pretty cool.”
“The audience can influence the judges; it’s kind of like [Showtime at] the Apollo,” says Quentin Talley, who will go on third this night. He says he likes the give-and-take with the audience, which will yell out after a good riff like enthusiastic churchgoers.
“I prefer that, because I know that they’re listening,” says Talley, who was ranked as high as twelfth in the world last year and is known in poetry and theater circles as Q.
He steps back from the mike to gather himself and get his game face on before launching into a rant about Black History month. Usually a crowd favorite, the randomness of judging wouldn’t see him through to the next round.
Slam judges are chosen from the audience by the slam master. “I’ll go in and ask who’s new to this whole thing, who’s never done this before,” Bluz says. “They’ll raise their hands and that’s when I get them. That’s the way it’s been set up since Marc Smith did it in the eighties.”
When it comes to slams, strategy is involved in how poets pick their poems. The topics range from the highly public—politics, religion, NASCAR, the war in Iraq—to the intensely personal—child abuse, self-image, relationships, suicide.
“We all have these poems that are designed to do certain things,” says Bluz. “It’s a game, it’s a sport. In order to win the sport, you have to come up with a strategy. If you have a poem that’s designed to pull the heartstrings of women, that’s the one you’ll do if there’s a lot of female judges. If you have one that’s very male-dominant because you have a lot of males judging, that’s the one that you’ll do.”
But not every poet chooses to speak on a topic simply because it might be a good strategic move. “A lot of poets will go places I don’t go,” says Norris Guest, who at fifty-one is the oldest of the competitors. “I don’t do a lot of personal stuff because for me, bleeding on the mike like that just ain’t healthy on a day-in, day-out basis.”
Overweight for my age bracket, and I agree,
Because there’s a two-ton boulder of concrete
digging in my spine,
70 kilos of broken family ties swinging from my
On the right the baggage of a vagabond is fermenting from never having a home,
Oh I’m heavy, overweight, heart, spirit, soul, and mind.
I’m standing on this scale in a gas station bathroom looking for accuracy from a machine that thinks I weigh 137 lbs.
Miesha Rice’s “Scales” seemed to ring true for the female judges in the audience and they rewarded her as such, pushing her into the semifinals. Known onstage as Ocean, her first poem was an exposition on self-image and the overbearing burden of what comments by her family about her weight—“too fat, too thin”—did to her psyche. “It’s my most honest piece, the purest poem I’ve ever written in life,” Ocean says.
I’m standing in front of you people who will assume this poem is about an eating disorder,
But I smile, look at my pride, tug on my shirt the way I always do, hold my breath,
And wish my demons didn’t weigh so much.
Pursuing her master’s in English at UNCC, she hopes to teach creative writing at her alma mater, Johnson C. Smith University, one day. Her final poem, titled “Long Grain,” was a sarcastic rant on sexual frustration and the men behind it. Would she have done this poem if more of the judges were men? “I would have,” she laughs. “It’s one of the poems I do at Wine Up just to get the crowd going crazy.”
If public speaking is one of mankind’s greatest fears, greater even than death, as certain polls put forth, then performance poets are truly daredevils. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that C.P. Maze was a Marine, serving his country for five years in attack helicopters in places like Kosovo and Africa. Originally from Houston, he moved to Charlotte in 2001 and is now an English major at UNCC.
His military service has given him a different view than most poets, a “live-this-life-now kind of thing that resonates in my poetry now.”
Cowan and Talley both call Maze one of the genre’s rock stars. Maze however prefers to talk about the collective wealth of Charlotte’s poetry scene.
“They say we’re a walking gold piece, and I think it’s reflective of the culture we have in our city because even though it’s a competitive art form, you want to keep raising the bar,” says Maze.
He ends his second poem with another pointed challenge to the judges and audience: “Thank you for showing up tonight.” But they loved him, and he advanced to the finals with Ocean and Da Minista.
The winner at Spirit Square would be Da Minista. Dressed in black, he looked more like a Ninja monk. After moving from the first round with a poem that seemed to slam slams, and telling the audience that “our demons act as role models for yours,” he nailed the semifinals with a humorous poem that blames Bush’s re-election, the high cost of gas, people who believe Elvis lives, and every other problem in the world including American Idol, on crack. Amusing, lively, and interactive, it was a crowd favorite, and the judges gave him a perfect score.
In the final round though, Da Minista would abandon humor with “Monster,” a sober and significant piece on being the victim of child abuse.
In six days God created the heavens and the earth.
He rested on the Sabbath day.
God’s first day off.
This must have been when monsters were created.
It was harsh and disturbing, yet compelling in its frankness. The judges gave him another perfect score. “That’s one of the hardest poems for me to do,” he admits, noting that he always takes his glasses off when he performs “Monster,” so he doesn’t have to connect with the audience. He says that it was another poet’s situation and subsequent poem that gave him the inspiration and strength to address his own monster in verse. “It’s not just for me, because I know there’s somebody else it can help to deal with it, move past the experience.” So, in essence, he is connecting after all.
“I compare poets to strippers all the time because we have to go up there and lay ourselves naked,” says Da Minista. “The best way to touch someone on a personal level is to let them know where I’m coming from on a personal level.”
Connection is something that Michael Simms is always looking for. “Every time I write a poem, I try to connect with a fundamental truth. My goal is for everyone listening to be able to connect as much as possible.”
At twenty-three, Simms looks every bit the Wachovia investment banker that he is by day, dressed in nicely pressed slacks and a starched dress shirt. The yin to that yang is the poet who aspires to start a nonprofit to mentor kids through technology and literature. He says his words are not his own story but interpretations of others he has met.
She spends most days looking for food and most nights
Looking for Jesus
She said she finds herself on her knees for two different reasons
One is to pray and one is for profit
So lately she has been killing two birds with one stone
Prays while she prostitutes
She asks me if I think Jesus would rather her sin or survive
At the end of the slam, as the Spirit Square staff tries to close down the building, the competitors stand about in the lobby talking about where to take the party next as they walk out together. Says Maze, “It’s a crazy little niche we have in this city that I don’t think anywhere else in the nation has, and it’s beautiful.”