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Slamming fits lifestyle for one poet

Marc Polonsky Daily Planet correspondent
Saturday August 18, 2001

Kenny Mostern’s committed to writing poems about every day issues. 

“There are tons of slam poems about instant attraction, tons of erotic poems about this or that kind of sex,” the veteran slam poet says, “but you’d be hard pressed to find many about staying in a relationship for 12 or 15 or 20 years.” 

This is not to say that Mostern, who has been doing slam poetry since 1996, shuns erotica. In one of his own signature pieces, “Feminists Are Sexy!” he combines flamboyant sexual celebration with modern identity politics.  

A New York native, Mostern got his doctorate in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley in 1995, and then went off to teach English at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he became “the cool young leftie professor,” published a book about African-American autobiographies, and immersed himself in an intense study of literary theory. He discovered slam poetry “accidentally” in 1996, when he attended the southeast regional poetry slam finals. He “fell in love with it “ and also saw it as “a great excuse to organize Knoxville’s first and only multiracial arts event” – a highly successful and well-attended poetry slam.  

Mostern was 29 years old at the time and though he had been writing fiction since his childhood, he had never been a performer. “Slam really fit a lot of my political and personal needs at that moment in time,” he says. Slam also briefly made Mostern into a more prominent figure in Knoxville; he was profiled in the cover story of the weekly entertainment paper.  

Mostern was drawn back to Berkeley, however, both because “the Bay Area pushes me and challenges me,” and because his wife Ruth was still here, finishing her doctorate in Chinese history. On leave from the University of Tennessee in the spring last year, he won enough local slams to qualify as a finalist for the 2000 Berkeley/San Francisco nationals team. Last January, he left his professorship in Knoxville and rejoined his wife – his sweetheart of 16 years – once and for all. Mostern, 33, is concerned that the local slam scene is overly youth-centered and he points out that “Slam’s roots are not in a youth movement. Marc Smith, who started slam in Chicago, was in his late 30s or early 40s. I would like to see younger poets think in terms of long-term agendas, and what it means to build communities that are going to last and grow. There’s this notion that people who think in more institutional or intellectual terms are no longer cutting edge, that when you get older you don’t learn or cross boundaries as much.” 

Mostern sees slam as “a means to a variety of other things. I’m interested in new kinds of venues that will maintain the emotional impact of slam, and the intense emphasis on dynamic performance that slam provides.  

He organized a prototype event in June, “Poetry of the Political Imagination,” which took place at the Stork Club in Oakland, and drew 75 paying customers on a Monday evening, and featured nine of the Bay Area’s premier slam poets. One of Mostern’s main themes is work. “I have a tremendous commitment to poems about work, poems about labor. We spend huge amounts of time doing boring-ass shit because we need to get paid and eat. It’s incredibly boring, but that’s the whole point that, to me, is connected with doing political poems about big structures, like the economy. Now, I’m also committed to the centrality of race and gender in all political discussion, but more important to me than the immediate emotional impact of separate events is, how can we understand the big structures that affect race and gender and class?” He chuckles. “Obviously, I’m the only person around who’d write a poem about the language of the NAFTA treaty.” 

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all currencies are created equal, that they are endowed by their federal reserve bank with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are liquidity, frictionlessness, and the pursuit of the highest profit margin. 

Mostern seems bemused by his own strong academic credentials. “I’m from a working class background and neither of my parents went to college. I’m an unusual person to have a Ph.D. But I’m not antagonistic to theory; I’m interested in what Marx and Freud have to do with my work.” When suggested that his poetry might be described as primarily “sociological,” he grinned and said, “I’m completely comfortable with that word. Many artists tend to believe that they are either absolutely original and channeling only themselves, or that they are channeling the gods somehow. But I’m very aware that I am doing neither of those things. I am channeling my society.” Kenny Mostern has three poetry chapbooks and a CD for sale, which are available at Diesel Books at 5833 College Ave. He can be reached at 


Marc Polonsky is the author of The Poetry Reader’s Toolkit and can be reached at