The time is 8:00 pm, central standard. The place, the Artists’ Quarter Jazz Club in down town St Paul. I am sitting front and center in a room jam-packed with eager spectators, waiting for tonight’s main event: the 3rd annual Soap Boxing Grand Slam. Any moment a hundred competitors will rush the stage and dive head-first into poetic battle royal, fists and cleverly constructed metaphors flying until only one is left standing for, like the Highlander, there can be only one.
Well, um….actually, there can be only 5, because this is, of course, the team selection slam and there aren’t quite a hundred competitors, there are *cough* seven, BUT what’s the point of writing about a poetry event if not to flex a little poetic license, right?
In all seriousness, though, the excitement in the air this past Monday was palpable. Every chair and bar stool was taken, along with most of the standing room. As the crowd gathered and the poets prepared, Matt Riehle serenaded us, bouncing from piano to guitar with a little harmonica and a whole lot of soul. Matt, whose musical talents are matched only by his fantastically dry sense of humor, can often be found at the AQ’s weekly open mic, when not cavorting around with one of his bands. If you haven’t already had the pleasure, you should come check him out.
The lineup of our usual suspects for the night went as follows: Sam Cook, Mike Mlekoday, Sierra DeMulder, El Guante, Jenn Sparks, 6 is 9, and Gary Dop.
Our hostess with the mostess? None other than the always sassy (and just a bit long-winded) Matthew Rucker.
And what kamikazes did we find to sacrifice themselves upon the stage? TC Slam vets EZRA (no, it’s not an acronym, he just really enjoys capitals, kind of the inverse of e.e. cummings)
and Shane Hawley (nothing clever to say about his name). A good warm up stretch to the evening, going from EZRA’s somewhat serious, somewhat abstract piece about the last days of living free to Shane’s very tangible and funny piece about wanting a hug from Michael Clark Duncan.
Now, I would like to spoil the end of the movie for you and let you know that this year’s St Paul Soap Boxing slam team is Sierra DeMulder, 6 is 9, El Guante, Gary Dopp, and Mike Mlekoday. They did us proud last year and I’m sure we’ll see more of the same and better this time round.
But it was stiff competition. I was seated next to and sometimes in the habit of assisting, the score keeper and I can tell you that things were intensely close at moments. Hats off to Jenn Sparks and Sam Cook who both gave killer performances.
Jenn’s second piece was a particularly personal and serious affair about an eating disorder and she deserves a huge shout out for maintaining her poise during her performance despite the loud and rude outburst of a certain standup comedian who needs to learn when to keep his mouth shut.
Mr Cook was strong and performed some of his signature pieces, though his stage presence was a little on the loud side; be easy sweet boy. Best luck to those two at the Kieran’s slam on Tuesday.
Sierra took the high score for the evening with a fairly new piece about the societal reaction to rape. Believe me when I say that last sentence does absolutely no justice to the raw emotion of that poem. With another new piece in the persona of Jeffrey Dahmer’s mother and her old stand-bys it’s clear that Sierra’s stepped it up for this year.
Despite Sierra’s sweet new persona piece, though, 6 is 9 still takes the cake for getting the most into “character” on stage. Even when he’s not actually playing another person (as he did with Her Name) he throws himself into each piece with reckless abandon. I’m pretty sure he had half the room snapping and tossing their head with him as he addressed the graduating kindergarten class of 2009.
Guante confessed after the show that he may have played it a bit safe, by using a couple of his best and best known pieces, but for my part I was still pretty wowed with his performance. He did 2 pieces I was unfamiliar with, the first about building, very reminiscent of the starfish poem in its stubborn, rebellious insistence on working toward the thing everyone would have you believe is unattainable or unworthy. The other, a bit more personal and reflective.
Then there was newcomer Gary Dop. I’ve been out of the cities for the last few months and this was actually my first introduction to the gentleman’s work. I was pretty impressed. His serious pieces will probably need a little sharpening before nats, but his humor is impeccable and will be a nice contrast to his mostly serious team mates who, even at their funniest moments, have not found the abandon to compose an ode to their lovehandles.
Finally we have Mlekoday, who came out strong, knocking some socks off with a couple of phenomenal new pieces. And I swear I’m not just biased because he threw my name in one of them.
(Thanks to Justin Schell for the beautiful video work. We’re not posting any other videos of the finals slam as per Matthew Rucker’s request. – Cole)