by Emily Erickson
- The Capitol Hill Times -
If you enter Scratch Deli on a Wednesday at 8 p.m., you’ll find the place teeming with a packed audience, nervous poets rehearsing in the back room, a barista busy pouring beer, and a friendly face asking you for three bucks to get into Capitol Hill’s poetry slam – Rain City Slam.
The MC begins with a brief background of the event: In 1985, Marc Smith, a construction worker in Chicago, started a poetry reading at a jazz club, The Get Me High Lounge; Smith intended to bring life to an otherwise dull open mic format.
History explained, the audience yelled back, “So what?” Apparently, the history was a formality. What mattered in the room were the 15 contestants pacing around back, scanning their poems one last time before the show began.
The DJ, a chubby 16-year-old boy, sat onstage behind a desk and blasted Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” from his MacBook while a few contestants danced. The MC randomly selected five judges from the audience, handing them a chunk of wood with laminated numbers attached with a metal ring. Points range from zero to 10, and decimals are encouraged to eliminate the possibility of a tie.
“Rule of thumb is to set the score at five and subtract and add points as you see fit,” the MC suggested. Then, to warm up the audience, she advised, “Audience members, please sway the judges as much as you can because they don’t know what they’re talking about. Judges, don’t be swayed by the audience members. You know what you’re talking about.”
The first contestant, Ella Barton, who was cheered onto the stage. Taking a deep breath, she began: “In Arizona, law enforcement are allowed to ask for proof of legal presence in the U.S. if there is any reasonable suspicion. Now, tell me, what makes a human reasonably suspicious of not belonging to one of the world’s most ethnically diverse nations?”
The audience snapped their fingers in approval. The sound of snapping, along with the sound of palms rubbing together to encourage nervous performers, continued throughout the show. These reactions and the anti-conformist topics covered in the poems were reminiscent of beatnik culture.
After blood is sacrificed (i.e., the first, “sacrificial,” poet speaks), the show begins. Each poet is given three minutes and 10 seconds to win the crowd. The contestants range in age, race, and gender, and they cover a wide span of topics – most often politics, sexual orientation, and love. Although some of their voices might be quiet and their nerves still bubbling, the poets all want to be heard. As the slam continues, it becomes clear that Scratch Deli is a safe space. Tonight, the most-judged members of the audience are the judges themselves; the crowd boos the judge who holds up the lowest score.
While most of the poets have something serious to say, some just want to make you laugh. Consider the rotund Mr. Bruce B. Reagan and his ostrich egg poem: “Boil me that ostrich egg. Scramble me that ostrich egg. I want to be that ostrich egg. Whatever you do to that ostrich egg, just put it in my mouth. Put that ostrich egg in my mouth. Yeah, baby. I’m a big man, and a big man needs a big egg.”
Most of the contestants read from their iPhones, swiping the screen and stalling for a few seconds to find the right material. Others, such as “Z,” short for Nitzary Zenaya, read from a spiral notebook. Her voice is softer than the others, but she finds a rhythm and her volume grows. Z begin with a description of her home life and her roommate, “You’d probably be able to eat if the eagle could fly on your chest, and I bet you’d be able to sleep if the camels didn’t crush your heightened nerves. You might be able to sit here with me if you didn’t let yourself get so high and far away.”
Speaking after the performance, Z said that she has been doing slam poetry for about a year and a half.
What does she write about?
“Everything. I do my absolute best to cover as many things in as deep and real of a way that I can. I write down lines anywhere and let my feelings run wild on the paper.”
Z stressed the community found in slam poetry, “Here at Scratch Deli, it’s such a supportive environment. Everyone gets into it, even Meghan [the barista] will get up on stage sometimes… It’s the cheapest form of therapy I know of.”
When Smith brought poetry slam to the stage, he was trying to modify the open mic format so that the performers would be heard. Instead of a poet quietly speaking in front of an uninterested audience, he envisioned a competition that would bring the room to life. At Scratch Deli, the poets who perform at the Rain City Slam every Wednesday night bring that same energy.
Scratch Deli is located at 1718 12th Avenue. For more information visit http://www.raincityslam.org/.