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Poetry team to compete in Battle of the Bay

By Brian Kluepfel, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday July 06, 2002

‘Berzerkeley’ Slam 


I’ll admit: until this past Wednesday, I was a slam virgin. Oh, I’d seen spoken word performers, poets, open mic performances centered on music. But never the excitement of a “competition” measured out in exact three-minute intervals, in which every performer is given an equal chance to reach the audience and judges in 180 seconds. So it was down to the Starry Plough on Shattuck, home of the Berzerkeley Slam, to see what this was all about, and also to catch members of Team Berkeley who are preparing for next week’s “Battle of the Bay” on their way to the National Slam Championships in Minneapolis Aug. 14-17. 

It is the seeming randomness of the slam that appeals to many: because the judges are picked by lot from the audience, there are no “experts.” Five judges score on a 1-10 scale, high and low scores are discarded. Local events like Berzerkeley Slam offer minimal prize money, whereas the Western Regionals will offer $1,000 and the Nationals $3,000.  

Audience participation is one of the goals of a slam, and heckling is encouraged. 

“Slam is a gimmick,” says Berkeley Slam Master Charles Ellik. “It's a device used to break down the barrier between audiences and poets, a form used to push poets to new levels they never thought they'd achieve.” 

Berkeley’s five poets (four plus one alternate) will take part in the Battle of the Bay, which really serves more as a fund-raiser and practice for the poets than a fierce win-at-all-costs battle (in fact, I was to discover that “competing” isn’t really cool, or what slam is all about, at least in Berkeley). Teams from San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento meet with Team Berkeley at the Black Box in Oakland next Thursday, July 11. Each local team hosts its own event, and there is a sixth called “Tourettes without Regrets.” All proceeds are shared among the teams for traveling expenses and the like. 

Slams are competitions with rules. Each poet performs one original poem which must be shorter than three minutes. Penalties are applied to those who perform too long. Slammers can sing but are not allowed to wear a costume.  

Kenny Mostern, an organizer for the Battle of the Bay, says that all the events are friendly, bonding experiences for the slammers. Mostern, who has participated in slam for seven years, including stints with two semifinalist teams at the national championships, breaks down the genre: “Slam is a very specific spoken-word format. Critics question whether it’s good for the art form, because it introduces competition and a time limit. I think it’s (a formula) like the pop song, or the sonnet. I love pop songs, and I love slam,” he says. Bay Area teams have done well at prior championships: San Francisco and San Jose shared the national title in 1999, with Oakland coming in third.  

Berkeley’s team is coached by Ellik, a slam veteran who moved to the Bay Area in 1997 and was soon the San Francisco Slam Master. “There really wasn’t much happening here, and I helped build up the scene,” says Ellik.  

He decided to focus his activities on the East Bay, where he lives, and now ekes out a living as the host of the Starry Plough’s raucous Wednesday evening slams, which he calls “one of the most competitive in the world.” In fact, people drive from as far as Santa Rosa and Reno to take part in the standing-room only event. This past Wednesday was a special “Amazon Slam,” in which women only were supposed to be involved in the competition. However, since only two women signed up initially, the competition was opened to everyone, and once the judges were chosen, the event began in earnest. (Ellik helps newcomers with a “Tips for Poetry Slams” handout, explaining the intricacies and mores of the art form/competition).  

If the standings from Wednesday’s competition are any indicator, Berkeley’s team looks strong going into Regional and Nationals. Karen Ladson and Rupert E. finished in the top three, and both lost points for going over the time limit (the judges and participants both got more exuberant and enthusiastic for the second round, fueled by poetic inspiration, nicotine and alcohol, perhaps). Ladson had an amusing standoff with a barfly who wouldn’t shut up, but she finally silenced him with an icy stare and continued. 

Kenny Monstren says scenes like this are part of the slam’s charm. “As a performer, you have to have the random appeal that you’d have in any bar. 

And that can change from the Starry Plough to the Black Box to the Justice League in San Francisco," he says.  

As DJ Tek Neek spun tunes ranging from Al Green to Nenah Cherry to the Guess Who, performers shuffled on and off stage, to much love and support from the audience. Some read from notebooks, others strode up to the mic like they owned it and spewed out memorized streams of consciousness; in any case, the quality of all was, to this newbie slam attendee, rather amazing. Although the scores were all relatively high this evening, sometimes Mcs have been known to play up hostilities between audience and judges, adding to the evening’s tension. Amazingly, a woman named Jennifer won the first prize, in only her second slam competition.  

The slam as we know it today coalesced in Chicago in the late 80's, under the creative guidance of a construction worker named Marc Smith, according to slam history. The idea spread across the country, evolving along the way. Every slam has its own traditions and aesthetic. In 1990, the first-ever National Slam was held in San Francisco, beginning a process of establishing "National Rules" and a network of communication that has made it possible for poets to tour the continent like one-person punk rock bands.  

Ellik has high hopes for Team Berkeley, which in last year’s nationals finished 12th out of 54 teams. 

Although he has his own aspirations, he’s keeping them in check for a higher purpose: "I’m a poet and I’d like to compete," he says. "But after the results of last year, lots of people asked me to coach again, and I felt really fulfilled, appreciated and wanted." Probably the same could be said of the performers on Wednesday, for "slam" is a competition in word only, mutual support and respect being the watchwords in this growing national phenomena.