It all comes down to one last vote. The score is tied at four poems each, with one judge voting for Two Deep and one for Jonathan for the last poem. The third judge, sitting at my table, stares at her dry-erase board with a furrowed brow while the audience yells at her—“Two!” “One! One!” “Come on!” It’s the end of the 11th Hour Haiku Head-to-Head Poetry Slam at Busboys & Poets on U Street, and the glory of the win all comes down to which poet this judge picks.
D.C. slam nights do not usually consist solely of haikus, but tomorrow is Slammaster Delrica Andrews’ birthday. Her “present to myself,” as she puts it, is a competitive slam of haikus—quick three-line poems: first line five syllables, second line seven, third line back to five—her favorite kind of poetry. In a head-to-head competition, two poets read one haiku each and the three judges pick which poem they prefer, holding up their decision scrawled onto the dry-erase boards handed to them at the beginning of the night. The judges are random audience members, though tonight there is one judge picked by the people in charge—as the MC says,“you gotta have a draft pick; it is wartime.” Whoever’s poem is chosen three out of five times wins that round and advances to the next.
In the first round, the poet who goes by Two Deep recited jokey, biting haikus on things she dislikes, (mostly her ex-boyfriend) that easily beat Scott M’s more conventional subject matter, although he recited my favorite haiku of the whole night: “If we lived every/day like it was our last, no/one would go to work.” Fried Sushi, a big man who reads his compositions off his cell phone, beat Turquoise’s somewhat cliché digs, and in a three-way competition of soulful young men, Dwayne B was bested by Hunter and Jonathan.
In round two, Two Deep beat Fried Sushi, and Jonathan eked past Hunter, landing the pair in the final round, a nine-poem showdown between Two Deep’s comedic, biting bon mots and Jonathan`s more carefully calibrated moments of wit. The tension mounts as the wins go back and forth until the competition ties on the last poem. It is as good as the Olympics.
For such a competitive scene, there is a lot of warmth here. Every person I talked to stressed that this group of poets is like a family, and the sense of camaraderie is palpable. At the Friday Slam, all of us crowded into the “Peace Room” at Busboys & Poets.
“No bad things happen in the Peace Room,” Andrews explains, “though people try, and get kicked out, and that’s always fun to watch.”
Svelte waiters dressed in black darted between the overcrowded tables, serving gorgonzola sandwiches and artisan pizzas to the audience, as well as B&P’s house drink, “D.C. Tap Water,” a complicated alcoholic concoction thusly named by Andrews because of its murky color. Andrews sat on the steps up to the stage at the front of the room, holding court and receiving a steady stream of well-wishers and birthday greetings, not to mention plenty of drinks.
Most of the haikus were cheeky innuendos, imbued with a healthy dose of politics—it helps that “Barack Obama” is exactly five syllables. There wasn’t much distance between the performers and the audience. The poets talk to the crowd and wave at their friends from the stage. After a particularly suggestive moment or an admission of vulnerability, crowd members yell out “What’s your number?” or “Aw, I’ll take you home!” despite the fact that most of them know each other already. Losers fist pounded with winners, and the whole audience laughed or “oooh!”ed at the appropriate points.
You would be forgiven for forgetting that there’s anything at stake, but there is: during competition season, which has just started, winners of slams accrue “qualification points” and receive cash prizes. Enough points qualify you for the local semifinals and finals that determine which poets will be the four member (plus an alternate) D.C. Slam Team. The team will go to the National Poetry Slam in August, run by Poetry Slam, Inc., the official organization that oversees the international coalition of poetry slams. This particular slam may have been more of a celebration of community than usual, but there would be results for the top competitors.
Jonathan—“Jonathan B. Tucker, the first,” as he told me—is one of the few white slammers in this scene. He got into poetry when he was “of the young age to start liking girls,” and wanted to express himself without having to say anything, a motivation he attributes to a lot of the poets.
“If you look around, you don’t see anyone who’s very married,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone’s trying to get some.” Aside from a promising pick-up scene, Jonathan describes slam poetry as empowering. He has a theory that everyone is a poet: some have just chosen not to write their work down yet.
“I don’t ask people ‘Are you a poet?’ I ask ‘Can I read your poems, do you share your poems?’ I know everyone writes poetry at some point in their [lives]. When people admit it to themselves … they recognize that what they have to say is valuable,” Jonathan said.
After continuing to write and perform on and off throughout high school and college, Jonathan has been writing and going to slams since he graduated from University of Maryland last year.
“This is my church,” he said. “I’m Jewish on Friday so this is my Sabbath. I come, hear some people spout some bullshit on the mic, it’s great.” He is particularly ready for haikus. “Apparently I’m the greatest ever. I don’t like [haikus]that much, but if the people keep demanding them, I’ll keep doing it.” He broke into a grin and looked at my notes. “Is that cocky enough? I want to sound really, really bombastic.”
Two Deep, who has been involved in both the slam scene and the slightly mellower open mic community, which is not competitive and a bit more free form in its regulations, sees a slightly different genesis for poets than Jonathan does. Often their friends, she says, push the best ones into performing their poems in public.
Two Deep has only been performing since Febraury 2007, after graduating from college as a theater major. She sees performance poetry and acting as a related set of skills, although she enjoys poetry more because she can give voice to her own thoughts.
“I write on topics I feel at the time,” she said. “It’s not always for me—once I write it, it’s out of my system. Let me help someone else. I could be bawling, and I go to the computer and write a poem, and it’s like, okay.”
Like any other passionate community, the D.C. Slam poetry scene has a complex mesh of hierarchies and ingroup/outgroup designations. You can tell where people fall in the social order by where they sit during performances.
“It’s funny,” Two Deep says. “When I first started I thought it was this cult with this huge wall that could never be penetrated. But now I’m in there, I look out and want to try and help people who are where I was.”
The D.C. Slam Poetry community is divided into “tiers,” according to Two Deep. The gurus are the masters, the old-school poets in a league of their own, beloved by all. Under them are the vets, who have just been doing this a long time, like Andrews. Two Deep is a rookie, a poet who has not been on the scene that long but who makes money and does fairly well. And at the bottom are the open-micers, the ones who say “It’s my first time, I’m just doing it for my friend’s birthday,” who are entirely new.
The interpersonal dynamics are familiar to anyone who has tried to work their way up a committed group.
“If you can get someone in the tier above you, if you can get their number in your cell, you’re a step closer. If you’re at a table with a vet, the other rookies are like how’d you do that,” Two Deep said, adding, “It’s like almost like name-dropping, but the one thing is that you can namedrop all you want but if you can’t stand on your own, you can’t get nowhere.”
Rakia McDonald, a poet who also does development, fundraising, and web design for a variety of poetry groups in D.C., is a slam “vet” who misses the old days.
“Right now, there tends to be a generation block between the two generations. Older slammers, in their late 20s and early 30s, remember the history of slam,” McDonald said. “The newer generation is influenced by music, hip-hop, a more mainstream style. Poetry is a family where we help one another, but you know which side you’re on.”
She misses a lot of the old culture of slamming—gestures like dropping a pen when someone says something profound, snapping versus clapping—that was prevalent in the early 90s, and worries that the current crop of young slammers doesn’t know enough about the greats.
“I don’t think everybody leaves their hearts on the mic anymore,” she said.
While it is true that Friday’s slam at Busboys and Poets was more confrontational than confessional, at Mocha Hut’s open mic night on Thursday, there were more than a few hearts left at the front of the room at the end of the evening. The low-key venue, also on U Street, was a marked contrast to the swagger of the slam. The host of Thursday’s open mic, Dwayne B, one of the soulful men at Busboys and Poets’ haiku night, was a preternatural combination of bouncy and laid-back. An avid knitter, Dwayne B walked around the whole night with a crochet needle tucked behind his dreads, and many in the audience sported his scarves and hats. It is a fundamentally supportive environment, where new poets are met with prolonged applause before they even read their work and where people are instructed to respect their fellow poets, the audience, and Mocha Hut itself.
“It’s hard to run a business, it’s harder to run a black-owned business, it’s harder to run a black-owned business on U Street,” Dwayne said in his introduction, and the audience complied by buying the usual coffeeshop fare of Nantucket Nectars and scones.
At open mic nights like these, Deborjaha Blackwell is usually the last person to stop clapping, particularly when a poet seems especially nervous. She was terrified three years ago, she said, when she walked into Mocha Hut, having been persuaded by a friend to read one of her poems out loud.
“I was scared to death,” she said. “It was all young people, I was old enough to be their grandparent. I was worried about how they’d perceive me. But that wasn’t a problem…they convinced me to do it—I was just gonna look – and I got mad love.”
Blackwell now acts as a sort of collective grandparent of open mic nights, albeit one who performs hip-hop pieces. She is known to twist around and glare at anyone talking out of turn, producing immediate silence from the offending party. The younger poets look out for her, too. In the time we were talking outside, several of the other scene regulars came by to say hi and to try and stealthily snatch Blackwell’s cigarette from her hands, apparently a regular activity. Blackwell took it all in stride.
“It’s ‘cause they love me,” she said. “They want me to stick around.”
Sitting next to Blackwell at the inner table was Candice, a senior at Howard University with twinkling braces and glasses. She, too, remembered how scared she was when she let a friend convince her to read her poetry at an open mic night a year and a half ago. Even Thursday night, after over a year of experience, Candice was nervous—she was reading her first love poem.
Successfully, as it turned out: her nervousness made her slow down and pause before starting, giving the room an air of expectant tension before she began, speaking at a rapid clip about the perils of the person she was in love with.
Open mic night poetry is a mix of monologue, rap, nursery rhyme, and rant, with varying degrees of rhythm and word play employed by the different poets. What draws all these people together, according to Candice, is that they realize how serious the business of performance poetry is.
“I used to think that spoken word was entertainment, and now I realize it’s some kind of therapy,” Candice said. “I’ve had people admit to me serious things, that they’ve been raped, things they haven’t even told their friends and family. My poem made things comfortable to talk, and opened it up a lot.”
Two Deep had a similar experience when she shared a poem about having Dissociative Identity Disorder, entitled simply “Two Deep.” Afterwards, people shared that they or their family members have the disorder as well
Despite McDonald’s reservations about the evolution of the discipline in the 21st century, she is still convinced of poetry’s power.
“I’ve seen poetry move mountains,” she said. “I grew up with revolutionary poetry, poetry that tried to address the effects of homophobia, racism, community activism. “I grew up being used to baring your soul on the mic.”
“I’m out every night at something to do with poetry,” Two Deep said. “If I didn’t come here tonight, something would have been off about my week. Poetry is my life.” When I asked Blackwell if performing poetry had changed her writing, she looked me in the eye and said, “It changed my me.”
Back at the slam the next night, souls were tested. This is a competition, after all, and while the atmosphere remains supportive, people are out for blood. A poetry slam hinges on the idea that one’s soul can be bared more effectively or entertainingly than someone else’s. The judge at our table finally wrote a number on her board—it is a two, which means Two Deep wins. There’s a round of applause, a rousing chorus of “Happy birthday” for Andrew and then Two Deep gets up on stage. They still have the room for a while longer, so they are going to have an open mic night for the rest of the time. As people start to shuffle off out into the cold, someone moves a microphone, gets out a sign-up sheet, and starts asking if anyone brought their notebooks. There is still poetry left.