“And I take your heart . and I put it in my blender . and I press pulse, whip, then liquefy. Now your heart is a mess . in my blender . how does that feel,” Madame Hillary, known at her law office day-job as Patrice Winslow, reads to her audience. Her words are weighted by sounds of fury, pain and vengeance.
She stops and there is an explosion of applause. She steps back from the microphone, nods gracefully, and takes her seat.
Madame Hillary is a regular at Teaism at Penn Quarter for open mic on Sunday nights, as are many of the vibrant and passionate people who come to share their slam poetry. Located on 400 8th St., NW, the Japanese teahouse has turned into a house of poetry once a week for the last two years, where customers can enjoy oolong and noodle while the art of slam entertains.
Slam is a type of spoken poetry that is written with the intent to perform. As the work is a form of expression, the slam poet has to be an actor as well as a writer. Many of the slam poetry sessions are filled with a variety of works, they range from fall on the floor funny to heart wrenching, angry or quirky. Some monologues are similar to those of a stand-up comedian and several others do simulations, such as a TV changing channels.
To a virgin slam attendee, the experience can be quite shocking.
“I was getting ready for a snooze fest, my roommate was the one who was dragging me to this poetry thing and as far as the poetry goes, I’m not exactly one to sit down and read Emily Dickinson,” junior Johanna Fishbien said. “But this is not your typical poetry reading, slam is so different. It is so interactive, so interesting, each performer really has a style.”
Sophomore Brett Waldman recommends the experience to his fellow male counterparts.
“My girlfriend is an English major and she had to attend a night of slam at Teaism, so when she asked me to come I was pretty skeptical,” Waldman said. “I had no idea it would be so fun, these guys and girls are so cool, and I even got to be a judge. It’s kind of a cultural genre of poetry, but everyone can get something out of it.”
The first national poetry slam was held in Chicago in 1990 and it is an event gaining popularity and recognition nationwide. HBO hosts the Def Poetry Jam, a type of slam, on Friday nights. The voices of these poets throb with verve in smoky urban coffee bars in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and D.C. These artists become celebrities in the world of the poetic elite. Saul Williams and Taylor Mali are just two of the more famous slam poets at the top of the rankings.
In the cheerful anarchy of poetry slams, there is room for many styles.
“You have to write one poem that everyone agrees is a poem,” said slammer Jack McCarthy from Boston. “That qualifies you for your poetic license. After that, if you say it’s a poem, it’s a poem.”
Teasim hosts a consistent, successful following on Sunday nights. The poets performing in D.C. have the opportunity to compete against other locals, at venues like Teaism, where the audience judges them. Any amateur can perform or judge, Teasim does not require any experience.
Shows at Teasim begin by selecting judges and leads into five or six poets performing on an open mic.
Judges are selected randomly at Teaism. Any guest off the street can, after paying a $5 cover fee, volunteer to be a judge. One does not need an extensive background in poetry or literature to be eligible. Open mic is offered to anyone, but competing readers have to contact the venue beforehand if they wish to read. Afterward about half a dozen scheduled acts perform. The whole show begins at 7 p.m and lasts about two hours.
The judges will give each poem a score from zero to 10, with 10 being the highest or “perfect” score. The poets must follow the rules but other than that, it is up to the judges and audience to determine what is creative, beautiful, funny or original.
Who is performing usually determines how large the crowd will be, Teaism Manager Roberto Aguilera said. He said audiences range from 75 to 80 on big name nights and 25 to 30 on other nights.
According to the dcslam.com Web site winning can lead to eligibility to compete on a larger scale, and eventually, for the best of the best, the chance to compete at the National Poetry Slam. The slammers who get the highest response often group together to attend a higher competition where they perform team pieces.
D.C. has compiled its 2002 slam team based on these Sunday night slam fests, and the team consists of six slammers. Two poets, nicknamed the All American Boy and Vince Vaughn Look-alike, join native Texan Dave Lankford, D.C. soul-sister Queen Sheba, funk poet Jamacian/Gulf war Vet Twain Dooley and the newest and youngest addition Joanna Hoffman, a junior at the University of Maryland, to make up the team.
Teaism on a Sunday night gives the opportunity for an intimate and original experience. A night as a judge or a chance at the open mic may bring out a hidden side or allow the chance to sit back and absorb the works of someone else.
“To me it’s a sport,” said Taylor Mali, slam poet from Team Providence that has frequently performed in D.C. on his way to the top. “It’s a tournament. It’s the showcase of the best performance stuff there is; if you’re not at your best, you messed up. If you don’t have a sense of humor, get off the stage.”