In the movie version of my life, I won the 2004 splam, performed at the talent show, and never looked back. In reality, I’m sure someone did ask me to read, but I’m also sure I shook my neckbeard and fedora and said something like, “Absolutely no not happening no thanks scared scared scared.” And I did that for the next five summers (at some point I got rid of the fedora and neckbeard, which is probably the reason any of you talk to me.)
Before that first slam, though, our class watched a video of Saul Williams performing “Amethyst Rocks,” and that’s when spoken word got me by the throat.
All the while, I knew without a doubt that performing was something other people did. I wrote poetry constantly, but I’d only ever show it to my high school English teacher. On an especially courageous day I might send a few to a New York press along with a note reading I AM THE NEXT KURT VONNEGUT, GODDAMMIT.
How that was supposed to help my case for sad love poems, I’m still not sure.
Once I was in my BFA program and building my self-esteem back up (see again: disposal of fedora, filling in of real beard, college radio show no one listened to), I did decide to slam in the spring of 2010. I biked down the street to Macalester College and signed up with a poem about a friend who passed away in 2006, with really no idea of what I was doing.
I was also talked away from using the stage name Calico, advice for which I am forever indebted to Dylan Garity.
I bombed and felt good about never performing again (“hell no thanks no scary scary scary”), but Miles Walser introduced himself afterward and said he liked my poem. I said thanks and did some self-deprecating it’s-the-first-time-I’ve-done-this-sorry-for-ruining-your-night thing, and Miles paused for a second before telling me, “You know what you’re doing. You should probably come back.”
I came back. That summer I volunteered as much as possible at the National Poetry Slam in St. Paul, cruising the venues to meet the superstar poets I’d only ever seen on HBO. I sent my first slam poem to Indiefeed and it debuted on the channel. In September I started the Hamline University Poetry Slam with a lot of help from the community, because really I had no idea what I was doing, and we placed 9th at the national competition. I competed in every slam I could find, volunteered, started an open mic, booked a tour I never went on, set up one-off readings at coffee shops and bars, self-released three chapbooks in as many years, and essentially walked through every open door I could find.
Of all those doors, though, the one I still get a rush to walk through is the one that lets me organize shows. In April I started my position at Word Sprout producing The New Sh!t Show Minneapolis, a series of all world premieres that flies gloriously on and off and on and off the rails for about two hours every third Friday of the month. I still direct and coach the slam at Hamline, and we’ve been at nationals every year since 2011. My friend Cristopher Gibson and I perform around the state under the name Sharkhooks, often booking our own gigs for small crowds we stick around and chat with afterward. I’ve been afforded the opportunities to organize and host publishing showcases, music festivals,
My joy as an organizer isn’t in trying to hype for my own art, though. It’s been about that in the past, but always left a bad taste in my mouth. My joy, whether it’s coaching or just hosting an open mic, is in trying to make spaces as comfortable as possible and see what happens from there. My joy is in telling our New Sh!t Show performers to “get fucking weird with it” and watch them step outside their usual artistic boundaries. My joy is introducing myself as the least professional stage presence you’ll ever meet and watching the crowd be willing to relax (more on that in a future post). My joy is in shaking things up but still helping to present incredibly professional and engaging art, because I do believe there’s space for both in a venue, and that’s why I do what I do.
Anyway. I get long-winded and there are things I need to save for the rest of my blog residency here at Word Sprout, but that’s a little about how I grew from a tiny, shivering neckbeard to a tiny, shivering baldy.