One of the best poetry slam teams in the country is from ... Cowtown?
By ANTHONY MARIANI photos by Vishal Malhotra
Not too long ago at the Black Dog Tavern, near the Will Rogers Memorial Center, where the annual Stock Show & Rodeo was in full swing, about 40 folks piled in to see a spoken-word poetry performance. For about a half-hour, they politely weathered lines such as “I love working your clitoris like a song chorus” and “Your thighs are my ear muffs”; scandalous remarks about “Ms. Hennessy and Mary Jane”; and a heartbroken white woman who made sad attempts at an urban drawl.
As the open-mic wound down, a quiet anxiousness took over the room. Everything stilled, and the audience focused on the stage, where host Mike Guinn, an athletically built, bald fortysomething man in a turquoise sweatshirt, introduced the night’s main event: the poetry slam.
“All right. Each slam poet gets three minutes and 10 seconds,” he said, “... and after each [performance], the poets will be voted on by our judges on a scale of one to 10. Now, if you’re ready for the next poet, say, ‘Word!’” The crowd did as instructed, but Guinn wasn’t satisfied. “I said, If you’re ready for the next poet, say, ‘Word!’” The crowd shouted back, sounding a little enthusiastic and not just a little scared.
What followed was a cross between fire-and-brimstone preaching, a public confession, and a verbal beauty pageant. At a traditional poetry reading, bookish wordsmiths stand motionless, reciting from written material and casting furtive glances at the audience. At a slam, the poets stare down their listeners and declaim from memory, harking as much to guerrilla street theater as to regal literature. Rattling fists at specters or hugging themselves, slam poets put their money and their moneymakers where their mouths are: The message and its presentation are inextricably linked.
The first poet, a “bastard” child whose mother told him, “Boy, you ain’t ever gonna be shit!” and beat him for resembling his absent father, was now “living proof that flowers can bloom from deceit.” Another poet, a squat white guy in a wheelchair, spent his three minutes and 10 seconds hoarsely reciting a list of topics he was not going to discuss, including “black issues,” alleging that the average white poet who brings them up is trying only “to score points.” He emphasized certain lines by holding his outstretched hand aloft and making gentle throwing motions. Kind of like a gangsta rapper who hadn’t had enough sleep.
After a couple more poets took the stage and did their thing, a tall, lean, young black man, with short dreads and tiny glasses, and wearing a black, flat-front leather jacket, got up. Imposing, but more authoritative than menacing, he proceeded to shake the building. Some words came out like cannon blasts, causing his entire upper body to kick back.
I want to be beautiful! Like pieces of Abraham Lincoln’s skull found on the backs of theater seats
I want to be beautiful! Like Fred Hampton’s red American blood sprinkled upon white Indonesian bed sheets
I want to be beautiful! Like the hole in little Brandon Teena’s chest
I want to be beautiful! Like the cotton gin tied around little Emmett Till’s neck
I want to be beautiful! Like the hole in the side of John F. Kennedy’s head
I want to be beautiful! Like the holes in Jesus Christ’s feet and the holes in his hands
... You see
I want to be beautiful like black skin being baked into concrete by Southern heat on Jasper, Texas, streets
Throughout the event, fans had booed or cheered the votes of the judges, who had been picked at random. The last poet won in a walk. There was never really any question.
The slam portion of the Black Dog show was far richer than the open-mic, and not just because of slam’s inherent competitive drama or the severity of the socially charged sentiments expressed. The writing and delivery of the poems seemed tighter and more inventive, probably in large part because of the caliber of the artists competing.
Two of the three finalists, including the winner, are members of Fort Worth Slams, a small, rotating team of poets led by an even smaller core of performing coaches. In last year’s national championship competition in Austin, the group ranked fifth out of more than 30 teams, outshining competitors from historically progressive cities such as San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Houston, and New York City. The year before, in the 2005 nationals in Albuquerque, Fort Worth Slams took third, and in the individual performance category, Fort Worth’s Janean Livingston bested a few dozen other poets to tie for first place (with Seattle’s Anis Mojgani).
Fort Worth Slams, though, is still somewhat of an underground phenomenon here at home. Cowtown simply may not be an optimal place for socially conscious, subversive art like theirs. After all, in last year’s presidential election, more votes for culture warrior George W. Bush came from Tarrant County than from any other county in the state. And in a conservative, stereotypically Texas hamlet like Fort Worth, art education languishes while athletics thrive, and civic, business, and religious forces fiercely protect mainstream arts institutions. The song that Fort Worth Slams goes and tells on the mountain remains muffled.
“When you go to big cities, like New York and L.A., there are huge crowds, people out on the streets doing their art,” said Fort Worth Slams co-founder Anthony Douglas. “We just don’t have that here.”
Four of Fort Worth Slams’ multiple co-founders are still active — Guinn, Livingston, Douglas, and AJ Houston — and they’re worried. And not without good reason. They’re all in their 40s and not getting any younger, and there’s not a lot of new blood on the scene.
Guinn said, with an exasperated laugh, “I don’t wanna be doing this that much longer.”
That’s a mite troubling, considering that Guinn is Fort Worth Slams’ glue. He started the group five years ago, and he still does most of the grunt work and hosts the bi-monthly competition. Besides Livingston, he’s the only other Fort Worth Slams member to rank nationally.
Guinn has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas at Arlington and worked for six years in Fort Worth as an investigator for the state’s Child Protective Services agency. He’d never written poetry until one day after he returned from a particularly rough case.
“I put my head on my desk for a minute, then I looked up, and I just started writing,” he recalled.
“I don’t think I chose [writing],” he continued. “It chose me.”
The piece, “I Wish I Had Lived,” was only a half-dozen stanzas long, but it got him interested in cathartic, activist poetry and in finding kindred souls. Within weeks, he got in contact with the Zawadi Writers, a local, burgeoning, ad hoc African-American group that performed and held writing workshops at prisons, inner-city community centers, and women’s shelters, and as part of after-school programs. Douglas, Livingston, and another Fort Worth Slams co-founder, Stacey Williamson, were already members.
On an invitation from Dallas slammaster Clebo Rainey, Guinn, Douglas, and Livingston traveled east one night to Club Clearview, where the Dallas slam was held for 10 years, until the place closed last week. The Fort Worth trio was floored by what they saw and heard. (Two of the Dallas slam poets, Jason Carney and Rock Baby, went on to perform in HBO spoken-word specials.)
The Dallas slams, Guinn said, “had a lot of power and a lot of energy.” By comparison, he said, Zawadi “didn’t have the focus and wasn’t providing us an outlet to grow where we knew the art could grow.”
Most of Zawadi’s members were also older and had a great, almost antiquated reverence for the written word.
Guinn and company splintered off to start a slam team modeled after Dallas’. They started slamming monthly at The Village, an Eastside community center. After six months, the group relocated to the Black Dog, at the club’s original location on Throckmorton Street downtown, and began slamming bi-monthly. Being at the Black Dog, “a more user-friendly atmosphere,” Guinn said, helped the group get certified by Poetry Slams Inc., the international nonprofit agency that oversees the national competitions and sanctions regional events across the country. To gain certification, slam teams must meet certain PSI criteria — buddies who shoot the dozens once in a while on a street corner do not qualify. PSI candidates have to prove they have a legitimate venue, a legit performance schedule, and access to legit promotional outlets. The Black Dog offers all of the above.
Earlier, Guinn, Douglas, and Livingston had also created Spoken Images, a group whose mission, basically, is to disseminate poetry, anywhere and to anyone, via framed poems, bookmarks, public service announcements, chapbooks, recordings, and “poetry-grams.”
Spoken Images and the Zawadi Writers remain active, but for Fort Worth Slams’ principals, the team comes first for two reasons: The principals believe slam poetry is an indispensable instrument for change. A performance artist in any discipline appears onstage in a state of emotional nakedness to establish an empathetic bond with an audience. The slam poets feel that by shining light on their inner darkness, they can generate more audience empathy and establish tighter bonds.
And, secondly, slam poetry is fun. “Helping people is important to me, period,” Guinn said. “It’s important to me [to help people] through the art of spoken word because, personally, it’s a chance to express the joys and the pains and the triumphs and challenges of life in a very creative way.
“Because I know if I can do that effectively and I can get people to listen,” he continued, “then they’re gonna start writing, they’re gonna start thinking about writing, or they’re gonna start thinking about change.”
A handy example is Douglas, a suicide survivor and former drug addict and gang member from Fort Worth’s Poly neighborhood. The 41-year-old is now wheelchair-bound as the result of a drive-by shooting. He was 22, on a pay phone in front of a convenience store, when it happened. The perpetrators were never caught.
As part of his recovery from drug addiction, he had to keep a journal, a simple activity log. For some reason, he recalled, he began writing in a poetic language. Soon afterward, he joined the Zawadi Writers. “I just wanted to share [my work],” he said. “It was like a secret, and for me, secrets had become pretty dangerous.”
Guinn, too, saw spoken word poetry as enlightening. “Because spoken word affected me, I believe it can affect others,” he said. “I believe that if I do it at the highest level, I can create a change artistically.”
Fort Worth Slams’ level of mastery keeps rising. In their first national competition, in 2002, they finished 37th. In their second, they ranked 21st, and in their next, they made the semi-finals. That they’re now one of the top five teams in the country is due both to their socially conscious material and to their tough selection process — the four principals are never guaranteed any of the five spots on the national squad. The representatives are determined by a series of slams during the weeks that lead up to nationals.
However, some of the principals make the cut every year — there’s simply not enough competition here in town to knock them all out.
Last week at an open-mic reading at the Black Dog, I had somehow talked Livingston into performing. As we sat at the bar, chatting and waiting her turn, a slight, bespectacled older gentlemen came over. His head was like a deflating balloon, and he was missing a couple of front teeth. “You know,” he said, looking at me and waving a finger. “You oughta do a story on us!” He started to walk away, thinking he’d said his piece, but he quickly swiveled back. “We’re one of the best open-mics in the country!,” he said. (Or was it the county? Or the state? The world?) His source, I believe he said, was a magazine whose name I didn’t catch. (I’d be willing to bet my typing fingers, though, that its title does not include the words Paris, Threepenny, or Ploughshares.)
After a few minutes, the guy returned, and he apologized kindly and profusely. But he had an opinion, and his opinion, plainly, was: There’s more to Fort Worth poetry than Fort Worth Slams.
Guinn witnessed the exchange. “Yeah, I went over to him afterward. I said, ‘That’s all fine, but when’s the last time you did a reading at a prison? When’s the last time you held a workshop for after-school kids? When’s the last time you went to a women’s shelter?’ He didn’t say anything.”
The slam poets all have their battle scars. To listeners in the heat of battle today, with addictions or abusive spouses, knowing that someone out there — a spoken-word poet, a novelist, a musician — has had similar experiences, Guinn said, is critical to recovery.
At the open-mic, the poets came and went. Some of them weren’t bad, like the young man in the Andy Capp hat who read his poetic letter to a young Marine and his new bride, and the woman who sang her paean to the Black Dog. But mostly the poets came and went.
Then Livingston got up.
With sharp cheekbones, a short Afro, and an electric smile, the fortysomething Fort Worth native is commanding. Her glowing charm and loud, smoky voice exude confidence.
Her poem began slowly. It boiled for a few seconds before erupting. She shouted. She sang. She swatted the air. (Get thee behind me, Satan.) She pushed. She pulled. She put her arms behind her and dipped and writhed as if hanging onto the mic by her teeth over a precipice:
As life grew inside me my thoughts interrogated me
That wasn’t even a baby, it was a mass, a blah, a wannabe
It was the blue line in the window
But who was I fooling, because I knew with every fiber of my being
It’s an embryo life formed upon conception fought millions to get here
That beautiful blessing I transformed into a detrimental curse
A few seconds later, and the poem had passed like a storm.
Livingston said real-life experiences inform most of her poetry, and that the poem, “Blue Line Kill,” is based on her abortion.
“The whole world is hurting,” she said. “And I want to be a part of that healing process.”
Just two years ago, she was thinking about giving up slam poetry. She didn’t like the way her team was treated at nationals in Albuquerque. She didn’t provide details. She merely said it wasn’t what she expected.
“But that’s when I realized that [my art] is not about me,” she said. “It’s about healing. When I get up on the mic, it’s about effecting change in someone else’s life.
“Even when I try to write a love poem, I still go into a socially conscious piece,” she continued. “I’m always thinking that it’s about helping people.”
Born in Arizona, Livingston moved here with her family when she was young. After graduating from Eastern Hills High School in 1980, she went to UTA on a track scholarship. (Douglas said that at one point she was rated one of the fastest women in the country.) Problems with the scholarship forced her out of college and into the working world, where she’s been a U.S. postal worker for more than two decades. She’s a single mother of two and CEO and founder of SWAV (Sistah’s With A Vision), a local support group.
Livingston has been performing professionally for about three years. Spirituality is vital to her work, she said. Though raised Baptist, she rejects labels. “When you get down to it, everybody believes in one god,” she said. “Peace, love, God, and the truth: to love one another. Being in the poetry scene, I’ve learned to respect everybody’s beliefs.
“The older I get, the more I understand my relationship to God,” she said. “I wouldn’t have made it this far without him, and he helps me understand people, to treat others the way I want to be treated.”
Livingston, a self-proclaimed “drama queen,” said spoken word came naturally to her. “If I could sing, I’d sing,” she said. “But spoken word is so much easier. I can say exactly what I want to say.
“We all have [Adult Attention Deficit Disorder] anyway,” she continued. “And my poems are only three minutes long.”
She believes that no other art form melds creativity with socially conscious expression as successfully as spoken word. Its unique, powerful, formal quality is its sense of urgency. A possible analogy: To stop a friend from jumping off a cliff, you don’t paint a picture for him or write and conduct a concerto for piano, violin, and cello. You shout, cry, kick, scream, plead — basically, perform a Fort Worth Slams spoken word piece — to get his attention and possibly save his life.
“Just one person at a time,” Livingston said. “If there are three people in the audience, each one of them is where they’re supposed to be.”
Spoken word, Douglas said, also has the peculiar advantage of coming on hard and strong. It has the potential to leave an impression. “A painter has a canvas or whatever he or she paints on, a wall or whatever, but spoken word takes place inside the minds of people, and it can grow beyond what you put out.”
The only thing that seems to be bothering some of Fort Worth Slams’ principals is the future.
“[Janean’s] tired. I’m tired. But we gotta keep it going ’til somebody steps up to the challenge,” Guinn said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
There is one performer they’re excited about. They don’t want to say they’re counting on him to carry the torch — they don’t want to put undue pressure on him. But they’d likely be really happy if he got more involved.
“All we got is Chuck,” Douglas said, meaning Chuck Jackson, the powerful 21-year-old who won the recent slam with his “beautiful” poem, “Pretty Ugly Things: New Thoughts Upon Religion.” Fort Worth Slams have recently incorporated some new blood into their ranks. But the most obviously promising is Jackson, a senior theater art major at Texas Wesleyan University and one of two newcomers to earn a spot on the national team last year. The other, Steve Sargant (or steven aka god the lower-case g), left North Texas not long after nationals to attend Texas A&M University in College Station.
While growing up in Stop Six’ Coming of Christ Pentecostal Church, where his grandmother, the Rev. Mozelle Jackson, still serves as pastor, Jackson learned how to perform in public. As a youth minister in his mid to late teens, he delivered sermons, often to the entire congregation.
After his freshman year at Wesleyan, Jackson said he had a spiritual experience that slightly soured him on Pentecostalism. “But I still wanted to fill that void, you know?” he said.
He tried rap, but he could never relate to the knuckleheads that seem to dominate the genre, and he’s sticking through theater, even though the fussy theater types seem as alien to him as rap’s ballers.
He started writing creatively during his junior year at Trimble Tech High School: short stories, conventional poems, critical essays, opinion pieces. He never realized he had a way with words, though, until about two years ago. His mother asked him to write a poem about baseball for his grandfather, who loved the sport and had just passed away. Jackson complied, and the positive reaction he got from friends and family, he said, was keenly encouraging.
A year later, in 2006, one Wesleyan alumnus introduced Jackson to another, Douglas. Jackson shared some of his poems, and Douglas liked them enough to invite the younger poet to an upcoming Tuesday open-mic. “I went to the slam that Thursday,” Jackson recalled. “I think I came in last place.”
He didn’t take the loss to heart. He liked the experience, and something about spoken word and slam poetry gelled with him. “With slam, it’s a nice mixture of people,” he said. “It’s not just young kids. It’s not just older adults. It goes across a wide range of people.”
He earned his trip to nationals last year by finishing second overall in the local competitions, behind the veteran — and the glue — Mike Guinn.
For Jackson, nationals answered a lot of questions. “Like anything else, some folks are there for the [hype],” he said. “It made me aware that I’m not there for the [hype]. I realized the importance of what I do.”
A regular Fort Worth Slams’ fan who made the Austin trip underlined Jackson’s epiphany. Unable to afford a place to stay, the traveler camped outdoors.
“After I heard that, I knew this was something serious,” Jackson said. “Before that, I said poetry was a hobby. Now, I’m a poet.”
Jackson graduates in about a year. He intends to pursue his master’s degree and doctorate in African-American studies at The University of Texas at Austin. Admittedly, he’s torn. “I love Fort Worth. It’s where I’m from. It’s who I am,” he said, but his college plans are important. “I can’t put those aside for slam. But I can include slam.”
Local and regional semi-finals for the 2007 nationals in August will begin in April. Jackson anticipates competing.
“I’m here now in Fort Worth,” he said. “It’s where I’ll be slamming. As [Douglas] told me: ‘Don’t limit yourself to slam, to something that has to be performed in under three minutes.’ You can’t limit your artistic feelings.”
Fort Worth Slams’ four principals also write poetry in traditional forms: sestina, villanelle, haiku. They also regularly publish chapbooks of their work.
Their ability to fuse traditional poetry with spoken word, Guinn believes, is what gives them a competitive edge.
Houston is Fort Worth Slams’ master of combining spoken word with couplets, rhymes, and half-rhymes. The way words work, even their simple appearance on the page, has entranced him since he was a kid growing up in Dallas. His mother made him read and do math for two hours every day — before school.
“I was reading at a sixth-grade level when I was in first grade,” he said.
Houston can’t remember a time when he wasn’t writing or performing in school plays or delivering spoken-word poems on request.
After working for 20 years as a mechanic for Voigt Aircraft, and after undergoing two work-related back surgeries, Houston was fired two years ago and hasn’t worked since. He’ll undergo another back surgery later this month.
In his poems, he takes a largely forgive-and-forget approach to dealing with private subject matter. The rhymes help the bad medicine go down easier, both for him and listeners. In his poem “If I Ever,” Houston says, “If I could ever erase the line that continually trace / The pain we had hidden far back in our minds / Mimicking the heartache and heartbreak / To mistake after mistake leaving stains for all time / I’d place the solution on the internet / So everyone could use it to forget / How much pain they had suffered / Using hearts as they buffer.”
Guinn said, “We’re humble to the art, and that’s come from listening to others — Langston, Maya, T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman. You’ll never know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”
Spoken word, Douglas said, is also a way to boost traditional poetry’s profile. “It’s a way for someone whose voice isn’t heard to get heard.”
Houston and Guinn have each self-published several chapbooks, and Guinn has a few erotic titles to his name. Douglas is currently at work on the follow-up to his 2004 chapbook, Dismembered Rainbows, published by local Temba House Press, run by Greg Johnson, the founder of the Zawadi Writers.
Most of their chapbooks are a mix of traditional forms and transcripts of spoken word pieces. They sell their materials online and at readings.
None of Fort Worth Slams’ principals has any designs on becoming a best seller. Everyone knows that the poetry books on retailers’ shelves now will probably be the poetry books on retailers’ shelves five years from now.
At that point, Fort Worth Slams might be history. Or martyrs.
You can reach Anthony Mariani at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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