Mic in hand, heart on sleeve

Poetry, like other art forms, is comprised of many genres. Music encompasses everything from the Backstreet Boys to Beethoven, art can be anything from scribbles in the margins of a notebook to a Salvador Dali masterwork and poetry can be those saccharine sweet lines you wrote to your “true love” in high school or the edgy truth of Charles Bukowski. The fact is there is much more to poetry than odes to a sweet spring day, but in order to discover any of it, you have to do a little out-of-the-box research.

Off of the page, onto the stage

Spoken word and slam poetry are two relatively recent derivations of traditional poetry. The literary aspect of the art is still a major focus, but with these two subgenres, an emphasis is placed on performance.

Spoken word refers to the dramatic performance of a piece of poetry usually written by the performer. Bars, cafes and coffee shops often host events called open mics. Open mic means, as the title suggests, that the microphone is open to anyone who would like to perform. Open mics are not restricted to poetry – sometimes people sing, play an instrument or perform monologues.

Slam poetry is usually very upbeat and has recently been associated with hip-hop mostly because of its rhythm and content. Slam poetry is typically performed at an event called a slam, a structured competition in which poets compete against each other. The contestants are scored by a panel of judges chosen at random from the audience. A typical slam is composed of three rounds with poems limited to three minutes each. Some slams assess point penalties for exceeding the given time limit.

The poets are ranked on a scale of 1-10 with one decimal point. The highest and lowest scores are discarded and the remaining three scores are averaged together. Poets are gradually eliminated as the rounds progress. In a typical slam of eight poets, four poets will remain after the first round and two poets will remain after the second round.

While slams are exciting because of their competitive nature, they are probably not the best place for a newly aspiring performance poet to read. A better alternative would be an open mic.

Poetry in action

The Lobby bar in St. Petersburg doubles as a venue for the spoken word every Wednesday night. The Resurrection Open Mic Show is hosted by David Durnei and Komeni Hopkins, two poets who have been active in the local scene for many years.

Durnei began writing poetry in ninth grade and since then has developed a quick-tongued confidence on stage. His style did not come to him immediately, but is instead the product of years of writing. Durnei began writing poetry when he was 19; he is now 26.

“When you start out, you’re going to f- up, but people will still like your s-,” Durnei said. “I’ll get off stage knowing that I f-ed up a poem and people will still say they liked it.”

Having an understanding audience is important for first-timers. Reading your private thoughts to strangers can be a challenging experience; you have to be determined and dedicated.

“Just keep doing it, go and put yourself into situations where you know you are going to be nervous and get up and do it anyway,” Durnei said. “The only way to get into your own style is to keep getting out there and doing it.”

Each Wednesday, he and Khomeni take to the stage and call out poets young and old, novice and expert, giving them a chance at the mic to show what they’ve got.

Back behind the mic

I have some experience in performing poetry, but I had not been to an open mic in quite some time before I decided to go to the Lobby last Wednesday night and break my hiatus.

When I stepped into the Lobby, I noticed that it was eclectically decorated and dimly lit. There are couches and comfortable armchairs spread throughout the place providing an accessible and comfortable atmosphere that resembles a living room more than a lounge. A long bar with a colorful mosaic top takes up one corner of the room, providing alcohol to those in need of a little liquid courage to drown the pre-reading butterflies.

The crowd was an interesting mixture of young, attractive professional types dressed in expensive designer labels and shabby-chic hipsters sporting their latest thrift-store treasure. I guess that’s what one should expect from an open mic at an upscale martini bar.

It was interesting to note the attentiveness of the audience. At some readings I have attended, the poetry has seemed like an accessory to the other distractions of the host venue. The audience at The Lobby was there to listen and they showed it in their respect for the person on stage.

As at any good reading, the themes and subject matter were a mixed bag. Goofy but clever sexual poems were followed by passionate and gritty verses of disrespect, revenge and unrequited love.

Durnei and Khomeni kept the crowd alive by interspersing the introductions with their own poetry and improvising freestyle verses.

Eventually my name was called and, feeling a little nervous, I took the stage. I had rehearsed the work I chose to perform many times and I felt confident that despite my time off, I would still have no problems. I began without a hitch, but halfway through I drew a blank. Nothing. I panicked a little, but with encouragement from my friends I managed to finish the piece and step off stage feeling a little more humble.

Later in the night, Durnei performed a piece of his own. He put down the microphone and stepped off the stage, continuing the poem while wandering through the crowd. His dedication was evident in the presence that he spread throughout the room, and I knew he was being truthful when he told me what poetry meant to him.

“I do what I do because it keeps me writing, and by writing I keep myself motivated, I keep myself determined – quite frankly, sane and happy,” Durnei said.

The best way to appreciate spoken word or slam poetry is to witness it firsthand, but if that isn’t feasible there are alternatives. Def Poetry Jam on HBO is a good way to see performance poetry without leaving your living room. Musicians Sage Francis and Saul Williams got their starts as slam poets. Check out their CDs if you want to get an idea of how poetry and hip-hop are close cousins. The Weekly Planet prints listings of local spoken word events and WMNF 88.5 airs a show called Poetry Is. Better yet, put down this article, pick up a pen, write something and maybe next week I’ll see you up on stage.

The Lobby, 217 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, FL. 33701(727) 896-3800