Wordplay on display
Performance poets find supportive community in Spokane’s growing slam scene
You can hear it from the sidewalk – the hollering, the wild applause, the boos and the hisses. If you happened to wander by Boots Bakery and Lounge on Sunday evening, you may have wondered what was going on inside.
It was a poetry slam, a raucous celebration of spoken word and performance art, and local poets gather at Boots, 24 W. Main Ave., on the first Sunday of each month to present their writing to the public.
These monthly gatherings, known as BootSlams, gleefully eschew the beatnik, coffeehouse stereotypes traditionally associated with poetry readings. They’re more like psychotic literary hootenannies, where rowdy behavior isn’t just permitted, it’s encouraged.
Local poet Isaac Grambo emcees the proceedings like a carnival barker, introducing each poet, interjecting some of his own poetry, and inciting the audience to react to what they’re hearing.
Each performer is allotted three minutes to read a poem they’ve written, and the idea is to isolate the reader and their words (props, music and costumes are all forbidden). Points are then doled out by a group of judges, who are selected from the audience by the host. They grade each poet on a 1 to 10 scale, and the audience makes a point to vocally protest scores they deem unjust: Anything lower than a 7, for instance, is going to elicit a flurry of boos.
But that’s not to say the slam crowd is imposing or uninviting – in fact, they’re just the opposite.
“There are points involved,” Grambo said. “But that’s not why people show up. There’s just something accessible about poetry.” Grambo said it’s the relaxed atmosphere and the sense of a hospitable artistic community that keeps audiences, of both poets and observers, coming back.
It’s an exciting time to be a Spokane poet, but slam poetry and Spokane have had an on-again, off-again relationship in the last few years. The scene had its first peak in 2010, with monthly slams drawing huge crowds at the Empyrean Coffee House. The following year, the Empyrean closed, and the scene essentially migrated to Neato Burrito for their weekly open mics (imaginatively titled “Broken Mic”), which follow a much looser structure than a conventional slam.
In May of last year, Grambo decided to revive Spokane slam poetry, with slams being held once a month at Scout restaurant. The reception was so strong, and the turnout so overwhelming, that Grambo was forced to start a second monthly slam at Boots. With Scout now defunct, Boots is Spokane’s sole slam venue.
That’s a minor setback, however, because Spokane’s slam scene is already starting to go global. Next month, five local slam poets will represent Spokane at the National Poetry Slam in Boston, and in October, Spokane will serve as host for the annual Individual World Poetry Slam. Tonight the team will perform a showcase of their material at Auntie’s Bookstore, where donations will be accepted to cover their travel expenses. (Auntie’s will also donate 10 percent of their Friday sales to the team.)
Chris Cook, one of the team’s members, has seen nearly every high and low point of the poetry scene over the years, starting with several failed attempts to establish monthly slams in the late ’90s. This past year, he says, has been one of the highs.
“It’s pretty amazing how quickly it’s ascended,” he said. “The atmosphere for live poetry in Spokane has gotten healthier and healthier over the years. It’s very, very supportive.”
Indeed, the slams have an air of camaraderie about them. There’s as much intimate, personal expression as raucous audience participation, and you watch as the readers and listeners form a sort of bond with one another: If a passage is particularly striking, for instance, the audience will snap a few times; if the reader stumbles over their words or pauses to collect their thoughts, the audience rubs their hands together as a sign of support.
“You feel warm and snuggly here, when you might feel alienated in most other places,” Cook said.
“Everybody loves everybody,” Grambo continued. “It’s like a junior high cafeteria. But without all the cliques.”
Last Sunday’s slam was indicative of that attitude. Before intermission, a 12-year-old girl named Kaley asked if she could perform a poem she had written. Grambo obliged, giving her a “special guest” moniker and squeezing her into the slam’s second round. She read the poem off of her cellphone, just barely audible over the whir of the bakery’s espresso machine. She was met with cheers and applause and 10’s across the board, and with that a future slam poet is born.