Truth Spoke Loud
Monterey's first slam poetry team revs up for the West Coast Championship.
Thursday, July 24, 2003
Photos by Randy Tunnell
"Consider yer asses rocked!" Brent Holder shouts into the microphone, both arms raised over his head in fist-clenched triumph. Then, a huge grin on his face, he launches into three minutes of hardcore, fast-popping poetry.
Nineteen-year-old Holder is hooked on the word, and the word is slam. He''s only been doing it a couple of months, but he''s writing like mad; he''s got his style down--a studied innocence, with a half-smile-cum- snarl, punctuated by gangsta hand jabs (or is that the Italian in him?)--and he just can''t stop.
"When you''re up there doing your thing, getting your fix and digging it, and then you hear that sound, the audience responding when you step back from the mic..." He shakes his head and grins again.
"It''s like heroin," chimes in Haven Duveyoung, 22.
"It''s awesome," Holder declares.
This Saturday and Sunday, Duveyoung, his 17-year-old sister Eden Duveyoung, Holder, and Marc Cabrera (the old man of the group at 25) will show their poetic chops when they represent Monterey at the sixth annual West Coast Championship Poetry Slam in Big Sur.
It''s the first time Monterey has fielded an official team for the competition, which last summer drew 11 fast-rhyming poet quartets from San Diego to Sacramento, and Team Monterey Bay says they''re ready to take on the best of the west--or slam trying.
"I think folks will be pleasantly surprised at our team," says Monterey poet Garland Thompson, organizing guru of the West Coast Championship. "They''re coming at it from the right point of view, they''ve got good heads on their shoulders, and they really want to represent Monterey."
So far, nine teams are signed up for this weekend, down from last year''s event. Thompson chalks that up to unfortunate scheduling conflicts: The Vancouver, BC, Oregon and Seattle teams will be preparing for next week''s Pacific Northwest Salmon Slam, and two members of the Los Angeles team are getting married. But the ever-popular Berkeley-San Francisco Unified Team will be here, along with the Bay Area''s YouthSpeaks team, which just took second in the teen slam nationals, as well as Oakland, San Jose, Los Feliz, Orange County, Vallejo and a Bay Area straw team. "I''m still expecting Sacramento, and maybe another southern California team," Thompson says.
Slam is a national phenom. From its now-legendary origins in a smoky Chicago jazz club on July 25, 1986, this hip brand of competitive performance poetry, declaimed live in front of noisy audiences, spread first to Ann Arbor, Michigan, then to New York, San Francisco, and Fairbanks, Alaska, before taking off. Slam poetry nights began popping up in bars and cafes, in cities and towns all around the country--and not a few foreign capitals as well--as poets took to the mics in droves, telling their truths to audiences that actually listened to what they had to say.
The first national slam event was held in San Francisco in 1990: Just two teams went head to head. This year, 63 teams and thousands of fans are expected at the national slam, scheduled for August 6-9 in Chicago. The 1998 documentary SlamNation, filmed at the ''96 nationals in Portland, put slam on the cultural map, a position solidified two years ago with HBO''s Def Poets series and capped by this summer''s NEA grant for the national competition.
Who woulda thought poetry would get so popular?
It''s probably because slam isn''t just poetry. It''s performance-driven as much as it is literary, drawing on hip-hop, rap and punk rock as well as the ''60s Beats and the best of modern American poetry. When it''s good, it''s magic. And when it''s not good, it''s still fun.
Locally, it''s standing-room only at Morgan''s Coffee and Tea in downtown Monterey when the Rubber Chicken Poetry Slam holds court the second and fourth Wednesday of every month.
Elegant Lady: Kathryn Petrucelli works the audience.
Thompson has been co-hosting the Rubber Chicken with Kathryn Petruccelli, a CSU-Monterey Bay English instructor and alternate on the Monterey Bay slam team, since January 2002. The crowd now tends to be less varied than it was 18 months ago--more young than old, with a large percentage of regulars who come back week after week to read, or just to listen. There''s a big contingent from CSUMB and Monterey High, some MPC students, and usually a table of DLI students and instructors, making this one of the few remaining venues where military and locals still mix.
"I''m very pleased with the way it''s grown," Thompson says. "It makes me happy to see audience members who come around on a regular basis. They''re not closet poets, waiting to get up the nerve to read, they''re just there to hear the poetry."
Monterey''s slam follows strict international rules: Each poet is limited to three minutes at the mic, and must perform only original material, without props. Each performance is judged Olympic-style with numbered score cards held aloft by five judges drawn from that night''s audience. Prizes are awarded, of course--$10 to $30 a night, in cash or coffee certificates.
But it''s the glory they''re really after. Nothing like the roar of an adoring crowd to keep a poet''s blood pumping.
"Slam has reached deep into the urban population," Marc Cabrera says. "It''s another outlet for the brothers and sisters to embrace, like rap. For years we''ve been told rap isn''t art, and we knew it is. Now we''re taking it to another level: poetry."
Cabrera hails from East Salinas. He''s a graduate of Alisal High who still lives in the neighborhood and draws on his roots for his poetry.
A founding member of the Salinas hip-hop poetry group Baktun 12, Cabrera also performs statewide with the Los Illegos performance poetry trio and the Cali Nation rock band, and teaches poetry and Chicano theater to kids just coming off probation at the Salinas Youth Center.
He''s the only Latino on the Monterey slam team, and is usually in the same position at the Rubber Chicken slams, where his politically savvy, Spanish-English rhymes about crime and poverty in "East Salas" stand in sharp contrast to the more introspective, personal poetry of the mostly-white Peninsula crowd.
"I definitely don''t sugar coat it when I come over here, or fall into cliches--you know, urban poet growing up in the ghetto," he says. "I don''t want to come here and portray some kind of gangster persona, because that''s not me."
Although his own work is intensely Chicano, Cabrera doesn''t see slam as an ethnic art.
"It depends on the venue," he says. "I''ve been to slams in LA, New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, and each has a different flavor, a different vibe. You can''t say it''s a Black thing or a Latino thing. Gender and politics come more into play than ethnicity."
Cabrera fell into slam as a natural evolution from his interest in writing, which took off in his sophomore year of high school during a UCSC extension class. "My teacher was into hip-hop, luckily," he says. "She liked my writing, and encouraged me."
Now a teacher himself, he insists that slam can be used to introduce young people to "straight" poetry, easing them into it via an art form that closely resembles the music they already listen to. Plus, he adds, kids are naturally drawn to its competitive aspect. "Kids are usually looking to prove themselves," he says.
Petruccelli has started off several of her CSUMB freshman composition classes by showing clips from the feature film Slam as a way of demonstrating the power of words.
"I show up in class as the geeky English teacher, and then I invite the students to come to the Monterey slam," she says. "I think they''re taken aback by the honesty coming at them from the mic, from kids their age, telling their truth."
Since winning places on Team Monterey Bay last month, following three competitive bouts at the Rubber Chicken, Petruccelli, Eden and Haven Duveyoung, Holder and Cabrera have been spending a lot of time together, honing their performances for this weekend''s West Coast championship.
The Duveyoungs moved to Pacific Grove two years ago from Arcata, where they lived for less than a year. But they spent most of their lives, about 15 years, in the rural town of Fairfield, Iowa, a kind of company town for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. "The Beatles'' guru," Haven explains.
The four Duveyoung kids--Eden, Haven, Cheer and Lyric--attended the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, where they took daily classes in Sanskrit, yoga and Transcendental Meditation along with the usual three ''Rs.
"It was a strange little world," says Haven. "We dug the cool stuff and tried to steer clear of the dogma."
Holder also moved around. "I went to 11 different public schools, including four high schools," he says. In the summer of 2001, he took the Greyhound bus out from Michigan to rejoin his father, then living in Monterey.
"It was June 23, 2001," Holder says. "I remember the date. Two and a half days on the bus." He says it was well worth the journey: "Michigan is a horrible place."
While the Duveyoungs were reading Sanskrit in Iowa, Holder was spending three years in Midwestern Catholic schools. "So in a way, we had a similar experience," he says to Haven.
"Now we''re all pretty much godless, devil-worshipping heathens," Haven points out.
"My mother still hasn''t figured out I''m Wiccan," Holder says [Note to Mom: Your kid''s a Wiccan].
All three friends live together in the Duveyoung family home--Holder''s going out with Eden and Haven''s sister, and Haven''s going out with Holder''s sister. While other young people their age are building careers, going to school or hanging around wasting time, these young poets spend every waking hour they can, pen in hand, writing down their souls.
Haven holds up a notebook filled with scribblings--notes, drawings, lines of poetry, descriptions of scenes he comes across. On the cover is printed in careful handwriting, "Book 114."
"I''ve got an entire bookcase filled with these, 113 of them," he says proudly. "It''s an obsessive-compulsive writing disorder. I just need to write."
They riff off each other constantly; they read for each other, listen to each other, and write their own poetry off the adrenaline rush.
"I''ll go to a slam with these guys, I''ll get an idea for a poem, and then I go home and have to write it down," Eden says. "I''ve always been a writer. I started out writing angsty 11-year-old poetry--''Your breath, your hair, oh!''--I never wrote anything I was proud enough to read to anyone until about a year ago."
That''s when she wrote an erotic poem called "Hot," read it at a slam night in Monterey, and took home first prize. "She kicked my ass, and I thought I was the resident poet," Haven says.
The elder Duveyoung has been "in this game" for a year and a half, he says. He read at his first Rubber Chicken slam in February 2002, and took home first prize for a piece called "Pretentious Philosophical Crap: Parts 1 and 2."
"I read because it was cheaper than sitting in the audience," he says, noting that audience members pay $5, while performers pay only $2.
Holder is the newest of these three newcomers: He''s only been writing and performing slam poetry for a few months. But he, too, always wanted to be a writer. "I wrote all the time, mostly short fiction, Raymond Carver-inspired writing," he says.
He was also at one time only one of two guys among 50 girls in a Riot Grrrls chapter. "They all had ''zines, so I started one called ''Shaved, Sterilized and Forced to Watch Boy Bands.''"
Just about every week, Holder and the Duveyoung clan pile in the car together to go to poetry slams up in Berkeley or Oakland or San Jose. It''s like an addiction. All their heroes are other slam poets, the big names from the Bay Area venues.
"Saul, Derek, Buddy, Joel, Shane, Jamie, Geoff, Emily, Mike, these are the guys I''m really into," Holder says.
"They''re all going to be at Big Sur," Haven says. "I''m so inspired by the poets I saw there last summer."
Talking about their heroes, the young poets break into a rapid dialogue.
Holder: "Dave Barry, he''s a slam poet."
Haven: "Douglas Adams."
Eden: "Edgar Allen Poe."
Holder: "These are all the people who inspire us to give back."
"When you make the audience roar at the end, or bust up in laughter, it''s so..." Haven''s voice trails off.
"Powerful!" Holder chimes in. "I started writing again after I saw Haven perform one night. It''s so easy to get sucked in--you show up and say, damn! I could do that!"
"That''s why I do it," Eden says. "I can''t sit there and listen to other people without wanting to get up and read."
"It''s an energy drug. It''s poetry and acting--an open conduit straight to the person reading," Holder says.
"They take their heart out and show it to the audience," Haven says.
Last summer, Cabrera, Holder and the Duveyoungs had to sit on the lawn while the urban poets they admired duked it out for the title of best slam team in the West. This weekend, they''ll be showing their own hearts.
Cheer on Team Monterey at the West Coast Championship Poetry Slam at Big Sur''s Henry Miller Library, Saturday and Sunday. www.westcoastslam.com.