Words at WAM is a collaboration between Hazel & Wren, of hazelandwren.com and @hazelandwren fame, and WAM Collective, the Weisman Art Museum’s student group at the University of Minnesota. The evening begins with a social hour in the gallery (coffee and snacks provided) while the attendees work up the courage to write their names on the sign up sheet. Unlike many open mics, participants are able to choose their place in the lineup. Have a favorite number under fifteen? It’s yours, if you’re early enough. While the night attracted a disproportionate, and disappointing (see below), number of slam-inflected readers, Words at WAM is for all who love the written word read aloud. Aside from the slam pieces, MCB heard flash fiction, novel excerpts, multi-part poems, unsent letters, and pieces of short stories. The influences—you can hear them without fail—ran from Ginsberg to Eliot3, Lydia Davis to Djuna Barnes (Eliot’s neighbor—coincidence? Impossible), and, despite aforementioned slam majority, made the event one of the most diverse MCB has attended in this city.
Let’s talk about slam. Just to get this out there—MCB, once upon a time, went to three poetry slams each month, plus one or two open mics. It’s an energizing atmosphere, the poetry slam, where the audience reacts more boisterously and the poems tend to at least ring longer in your ears if they fail to vibrate in your heartagain, 2. MCB saw some amazing work, way back when, and it’s hard to forget the best of those poems. Of course, MCB also harbors nightmarish memories of the poems that want us to do something about the children in Darfur (maybe this is dating the experience), or the difficulty in being a strong woman in a bad relationship, or how the audience should get up and start some kind of revolution (in response to what, it never mattered), or any other variety of unambiguous sociopolitical outrages portrayed in black and white morality despite said outrage’s inherent complexity. Couple this with the hand gestures (beginning slam poets have their own shared sign language), the shouting as if the microphone wasn’t already amplifying every stressed syllable, the slow part of the poem, maybe five sevenths of the way through, during which the poet becomes very quiet before shouting louder and faster than s/he ever has, and the choice between two endings: a) the final shouted word phrase, spoken more slowly, or b) the quiet, shaky-voiced plea for the audience or the constructed (and unquestionably immoral/ignorant/evil) addressee to bring about some kind of change, after which the poet’s eyes close, and we’re left to feel devastated as s/he walks off stage. These, of course, are the “good” slam poets. The recognizably bad ones, while uncomfortable to watch, are at least interesting to listen to in their nervousness and idiosyncrasy.
This is not a rant about slam. This is to put things into perspective. Outlined above is your typical night at a poetry slam, with two or three poets out of the twelve reading not only a memorable poem, but giving a phenomenal, genuine, and original performance. Some of the best lines of poetry I’ve heard in the last few years have come from locals Sierra DeMulder, Khary Jackson, and Kyle “Guante” Myhre. While this shouldn’t surprise anyone who attends literary events, considering you’ll find less-skilled readers and performers at every open mic (such is the nature of the open mic), regardless of genre or style, one concludes that many people forget this. Slam, by nature, is a very aggressive art form. Unlike more traditional forms of literature-as-read-aloud, you can’t disregard slam while it’s there in front of you. In this city, it’s loud, demanding, and more often than not as far from subtle as possible. While it’s easy to tune out the quiet readers who mutter into their creased and coffee-stained poems or manifestos, you’d have to leave the room to avoid a sub-par slam piece, and this is why it’s so easy to be turned off to slam, or the local poetry scene in general. Slam has its brilliant performers, some of which MCB knows and loves, but slam also has its regulars and irregulars who show up to keep the night going, even though your teeth might be ground into their gums by the evening’s end. Open mics have had the same problem since their inception. It’s just become easier for us to overlook that. Really, it’s a numbers game. Some of it’s good, but most of it’s not, whether “it” refers to poets, guitarists, magicians, dramatists, female cross-dressers lip-synching to Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man”4, or the growing number of youngsters who play the ukulele. You can’t get away from this, regardless of what coffee shop, art gallery, or attic you go to, and regardless of what city said establishment calls home. The important thing is to look past the numbers and recognize the talent, as well as to learn from the talent not yet developed, or even the talent that never will develop.
MCB learned a lot on Wednesday. That poems about rockfish and the desolation of their benthic dark, for example, are startlingly beautiful, especially when performed, as by Jeffrey Skemp, with a slow, deliberate, not-sure-whether-to-laugh-or-be-totally-blown-away gravity. It was the first moment of the night at which MCB’s jaw dropped5—which, needless to say, is the best visible reaction one can have to literature, followed by an exhaled half-moan at the work’s conclusion. It’s that mixture of not knowing whether to giggle or pray, like after getting really good head, that keeps us coming back to literature. MCB doesn’t play favorites, but, well, you know.
Another of the night’s highlights was Mason Nunemaker’s piece on the conflict between love and sex that can plague gay youth, yearning for a relationship where “holding hands doesn’t immediately become a handjob.” Despite a subdued performance, Nunemaker promises to be a slam poet who transcends the stock hand gestures and heavy-handed morality. This poem, of course, threw new light on the following reader, whose flash piece on a fraternal relationship complicated by incest was made even creepier by its reader’s refusal to look at the audience. Again, such is the nature of the open mic.
Despite the range of talent and performance skills, Hazel & Wren’s Words at WAM was one of the most successful, enjoyable, and, again, diverse open mics MCB has attended in years. In fact, it’s because of that range that we go to open mics. If we expected everything to be a brilliant, finely composed piece of work, we’d probably attend a professional reading. The open mic is a learning experience, as well as a chance to meet writers like yourself, writers who are just starting out, or writers who’ve been doing this for much longer than you (or simply have a better knack for it). Everyone has something to share, and everyone has something to learn. You just have to listen. If you don’t listen, it’s nothing but yelling, muttering, strangely inflected syllables, out of sync rhythms, and crinkling pages as our work trembles in our hands. That’s the other thing—it didn’t matter who you were, or what you read. If you were onstage, the pages in your hands were shaking. That, if nothing else, teaches us all we need to know about our foolish and consuming passion, as well as why we need to get over ourselves and share it.
Visit Hazel & Wren’s website to see all they’ve got going on, as well as a detailed calendar of the city’s literary events. And don’t forget about the Weisman and the WAM Collective, who made the event possible.
Photo by visual.dichotomy
1: This happened, several years ago, at Kieran’s. Granted, he proceeded to perform afterward, but MCB has no memory of the song, or even what instrument he played.
2: Please assume, in all reviews and literary correspondence, that “heart” is used henceforth in the lazy, cliché, metaphorical sense.
3: MCB dares anyone to read Timothy Otte’s “Lord of Darkness, Empress of Sand” without picking out its delightful echoes of The Waste Land.
4: A performance MCB will never forget, in the good way.
5: The second of which was when Lightsey Darst—the night’s other featured performer—began to shrink away from the microphone while various members of the audience, scattered about the room, began to read different parts of the same poem. While the poem itself was difficult to comprehend, MCB would like to think this doesn’t matter. As Darst’s readers got up and moved around the room, reading at times individually and at times together, MCB sat back and listened to the voices and the poetic fragments, a giving-yourself-over-to-literature experience that we rarely get.