A new group reignites competitive poetry in Asheville

PREACH: While local slam series co-founder Caleb Calhoun describes slam as the pop radio of poetry, appealing to an audience that doesn’t necessarily seek out poetry readings, fellow poet Justin Blackburn points out that to some, slam is church. “Every week, people are there to share their souls and also to receive other people’s souls,” he says. “You feel people emotionally grow from that.” Humansandpoetry slam team member Abbie Young, pictured, performs at a recent Asheville Biscuit Head Slam Poetry Series event. Photo by Libby Gamble

Asheville’s affair with poetry is one of cycles and waves, the rise and fall of scenes and platforms and teams. But even if names and styles come and go, the art of verse runs through the local culture like a thread or, perhaps, the peaks and valleys on an electrocardiogram. Right now, that EKG is spiking.

“Our shows have been doing well,” says poet Justin Blackburn, co-creator of the Humansandpoetry collective and its event arm, the Asheville Biscuit Head Slam Poetry Series (sponsored by the Biscuit Head cafe). The next slam takes place at the LaZoom Room on Thursday, Jan. 17.

“Our first show sold out, and we had 30 people who couldn’t get in and stood and watched through the LaZoom Room doors,” says Caleb Calhoun, series co-founder. “Our second show, if you added in the performers, we had 92 people, so that was really cool to see.” The series might require a bigger venue in the future, but for now, Blackburn and Calhoun love the vibe of the LaZoom Room and the fact that the fairly intimate size leaves poetry fans clamoring to get in.

Slam, explains Blackburn — who’s been on teams for years — was created by Chicago-based artist Marc Smith, who turned poetry presentation into a sport. “You have these high-level performances where people are ripping apart their lives in a profound, performance-esque way, so [listeners] are mesmerized by how intense it is,” says Blackburn. “People are saying their deepest fears, people are challenging the system … but at the same time, they’re also getting scored. Not only is it this empowering performance, [but it’s also] a game.”

There is a level of ferocity to the competition — judges are selected from the audience (in effect, a jury of peers) just before the start of the show; performers are given a three-minute time limit and are awarded points by way of a pretty subjective system; and the winner takes home a cash award culled from sponsorships from a portion of the price of admission (a recent show had a $185 prize pot), as well as gift certificates to local businesses.

“It’s a wild card. There’s chance, there’s luck and there’s also skill,” Calhoun says of what it takes to win. Though a longtime writer, he hadn’t participated in a slam before joining Humansandpoetry and admits, “I originally thought it was freestyle” — a form of rap where wordsmiths make up and deliver verses on the fly. There’s a similar competitive (and also supportive) spirit between slam and freestyle, but unlike the rap form, slam poets can write and rehearse their work before delivering it in the contest format.

Earlier this year, Blackburn set out to create an Asheville slam poetry team. It’s not a new concept to this city, with performance poets holding events since the formal advent of slam in the early 1990s (see the Authentic Asheville sidebar for details). According to the PoetrySlamAsheville website, local teams competed in the National Poetry Slam in the mid-’90s and 2002. “Asheville slam poetry re-emerged in October 2007 at [the now-defunct coffeehouse] The Dripolator, hosted by slam master Kapila McNary. In September 2008, Douglas Rogers created Poetry Slam Asheville at Firestorm Books,” says the website. “In May 2010, the slam moved to The Hookah Bar [then on North French Broad Avenue and] made yet another exciting move in November 2010 into the historic Masonic Temple.”

For this latest iteration of local slam, Blackburn and fellow poet Abbie Young recruited Calhoun, Taylon Breeden and Amanda Rosie Louise Deitz. The collective hopes to compete well beyond Asheville. There are plans in the works to go to the Southern Fried Poetry Slam (which will take place in Fayetteville in June) and the National Poetry Slam (currently on hiatus). Young and Calhoun, who both made the final three at LEAF’s poetry slam last year, will return to that competition in 2019. And, “We hope to travel with this,” says Calhoun.

“We’d love to get college shows,” says Blackburn. “We all have a different avenue that we’re on, but we’re all trying to shine light on the problems of the world and trying to change the world through poetry. That’s our goal: to continue to express ourselves and inspire people.”

Much of that mission is contained within the slam series. “Slam is church for some people,” says Blackburn. “Every week, people are there to share their souls and also to receive other people’s souls. You feel people emotionally grow from that.”

Calhoun describes slam as the pop radio of poetry, appealing to an audience that doesn’t necessarily seek out poetry readings. To add to the perhaps more Democratic atmosphere of the Asheville Biscuit Head Slam Poetry Series, “[local folk-rocker] Lo Wolf played at the last one,” says Blackburn.

“We’re trying to get musicians involved,” Calhoun adds, “and we had a local yogi come in and do breathing exercises with everyone in between the rounds. … We want this completely weird event that is nothing like any other poetry event you’ve ever been to. And it is.”

That freedom of expression, the group hopes, will lead to breakthroughs. “Some people who were [scared to talk] are now getting onstage at nationals,” Blackburn says of his experience attending such events. “Slam is a great way for people to share their voice and feel that their voice matters. Because it does.”

WHAT: Asheville Biscuit Head Slam Poetry Series, facebook.com/humansandpoetry
WHERE: LaZoom Room, 76 Biltmore Ave.
WHEN: Thursday, Jan. 17, 8 p.m. $5 to watch/$10 to compete

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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