Austin Poetry Slam: The Spoken Word Revolution

By Jasmine Alexander, Jessica Duong, Kaine Korzekwa and Joan Vinson

Sam Sax reads in the Austin Poetry Slam at Spider House Ballroom on Tuesday, Jan. 28.

Sam Sax competes in the Austin Poetry Slam at Spider House Ballroom on Tuesday, Jan. 28. The venue hosts the slam every Tuesday at 8 p.m.

The rhymes made during the Austin Poetry Slam won’t be heard in any high school English class.

It’s not like a typical poetry performance, where artists recite their work to an applauding audience. Instead, an audience with randomly selected judges decides which poets leave with a $100 prize. Hearing the poets cry, scream, laugh, dance, wail or flail during their passionate performances is almost guaranteed.

The result is a poetry competition like no other.

“[Slamming is] kind of like theater or art,” said Victoria Murray, a slam poet. “Once you start going on a regular basis you can’t stop doing it even if you take a hiatus from coming. You’re still always writing, you’re still always thinking about things or performances or lines. Once you love something you can’t just let it stop flowing out of you.”

The Spider House Ballroom hosts the Austin Poetry Slam every Tuesday at 8 p.m. with a $5 admission. Murray fell in love with slamming the first time she attended one in the spring of 2011. Two years later, Murray, who works at a bank, began slamming.

“It’s the modern-day storytelling of our time,” she said. “We’ve lost a lot of that, I think, over the years, especially with social media. People come up here and tell their stories and they tell exactly how they’re feeling, and sometimes a poem can really move you to the point of tears or laughter, or to where you just want to go hug a person, even though you don’t know them.”

The act of “slamming” is relatively new in the world of poetry. Marc Smith is credited with throwing the first poetry slam in Chicago in 1987. According to his website, from then on the poetry slam movement spread across America and the globe — there are poetry slams in Greece, Latvia and Madagascar, to name a few.

Many members of the Austin Poetry Slam see writing poetry and slamming as an outlet for expression. Chris Formey, a poetry slam contestant, uses poetry to help deal with his bipolar disorder and schizophrenic episodes.

“I’ve actually been writing [poetry] since I was in fourth grade,” said Formey, 22. “I’ve always been a writer. It’s been an outlet for me. Sometimes, not having someone to talk to, I can just talk to myself on a page. I try to speak about as many uplifting things as I possibly can. Everyday, I kind of see life as like a boxing match.”

Des Grosshuesch, another slam poet, finds inspiration in everyday activities. She said she got into slams because she likes to read aloud what she writes.

“I spend a lot of time just going and getting on the train, riding it back and forth and talking to people and getting stories from them,” she said. “Mostly people just talk about their lives and they become sort of characters that I talk about.”

Austin Poetry Slam is just one of the weekly spoken word shows in Austin. Neo-Soul, at Mr. Catfish & More, and Kick Butt Poetry, at the Kick Butt Coffee on Airport Boulevard, also attract top slam poets of the area. Check out the map below to see how close you live to a poetry slam.

“In general, it’s a family,” said Murray. “We fight and we get annoyed with each other, but we all still drop everything and give you the shirt off our backs. We all come from so many different backgrounds, [yet] we can all meld together so well.”

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