The Starry Plough Pub in South Berkeley is a classic Irish pub with a bit of a Berkeley hippie vibe thrown in. Behind the bar is a neon Belfast Sparkling Water clock and the obligatory Guinness mirror. Political posters from across the decades, some of which reflect the pub’s deep roots as an Irish Revolutionary watering hole, line the walls, along with a Che Guevara banner. On a recent Wednesday night, the scent of cannabis wafted in from the street, mingling with the fragrance of french fries.
On a scale from 0.0 to 10.0, the vibe was about to be ramped up from a chill 2.0 to the emotional equivalent of an 11.
Mallory Asis, an 18-year-old freshman from Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga, began her poem by talking about how much she hates statistics. That seemingly innocent observation segued into a litany of statistics about sexual assault, the real subject of her rant, which she ended with a powerful, “Can we stop learning about statistics and start learning about solutions?”
Bri Blue, a fifth-generation Berkeleyan who named her son Berkeley Isador Blue after her hometown, described her anxiety about the violence perpetrated against Black male bodies. “How many more bodies?” she asked at one point. “Black lives matter?” she concluded, “Sheeeit! That’s the answer to a question that should have never been asked in the first place!”
Owaju L.C., from Sacramento, whose intense stage presence initially hushed the crowd, delivered a scathing diatribe about a poisonous partner. “All you see is a Mr. Good Dick who is willing to babysit,” he concluded, eliciting whoops and applause.
Welcome to the Berkeley Poetry Slam, where poets have been laying bare their souls for 25 years. The Berkeley slam is the longest-running poetry slam on the West Coast and one of Northern California’s only known weekly poetry slams.
With such a long history as an incubator of performed poetry, the slam has nurtured the careers of several well-known slam poets, among them Jason Bayani, Nazelah Jamison, Sam Sax and Reggie Edmonds, and served as a model for other regional slams, among them the Oakland Slam, Tourettes Without Regrets in Oakland, UC Berkeley’s Collegiate Slam and Coast Slam/Fort Bragg, Petaluma, Marin and Santa Rosa slams. The Bay Area Book Fest, which celebrated the slam’s 25th anniversary with a panel discussion in May, called the weekly happening “a staple of Berkeley culture” and a “medley of great art, food, beer and great vibes!”
Key to the Berkeley Poetry Slam’s success is its long and symbiotic relationship with its venue, The Starry Plough, which features Irish music on Sundays and Irish dancing on Mondays, along with other live events. The poetry slam draws a diverse crowd, joined by the desire to have a rollicking good time while celebrating the spoken word. Hence, another community was born, a development not lost on the slam’s organizers or the pub’s owners.
“We have been blessed to be able to be here as long as we have,” said Collin Edmonds, 26, of Oakland, who leads the latest generation of organizers of the nonprofit, along with his twin brother, Reggie, likewise a poet.
“It is the one night when people who would never come here come for the poetry,” said Shahin Naima, whose parents, Rose Hughes and Mehrdad Naima, have owned the 50-year-old pub since 1985. Naima has been working at the bar since 2011, after graduating from college. “It is a good group of people.”
“We are not just a regular bar,” he added, referring to the bar’s revolutionary past. He pointed to a quote from the Irish Republican James Connoly painted on a wall near the stage. Its first line: “No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression.”
“The beauty of having this space is not about selling food and beer,” he said. “In the Irish tradition, it is a public house, a place for community to come and express themselves.”
More rowdy than the beats
One difference between a traditional poetry reading and a slam is the performative aspect.
“Poetry slam is built on the spoken word and spoken word is meant to be heard aloud,” said Edmonds. “It is really meant to be performed. There is more of an emphasis on the theater element. If you have a background in theater, it is going to be a lot easier to get into slam poetry.”
With their black turtlenecks and berets, the beats preferred the coolness of finger-snapped responses, no matter how dramatic the poem or its delivery. Even Allen Ginsberg, who struggled to read “Howl” before a raucous UC Berkeley crowd in 1956, told the audience, “I’d like to read this without all the hip static,” before finally asking them to “Cut the bullshit!”
In a poetry slam, however, audiences are expected to interact and even shout out. Combined with the emcee’s f-bombs, racy comments or jokes that can rev up the crowd or act as an antidote to all the exposed emotions, the slam felt like a Baptist revival, standup comedy act and political rally all in one.
It may be art, but there are rules
“A poetry slam is when we take poetry and we make the artists gladiators and battle it out as entertainment and for cash prizes,” Edmonds told newcomers at the start of the 8:30 show, which lasts two hours. But there were some rules, “so shit don’t get too wild.”
For the poets: no props, no costumes, no musical accompaniment “other than sounds you can make with your own voice and body” and no nudity.
“What? Booo!” an audience member shouted.
“This is a family show!” Edmonds responded.
Poets get 3 minutes and 10 seconds to read. If they go over that time, they will be cut off by music.
Edmonds then culled five volunteers to act as judges out of an audience of about 50. The one criteria: Judges couldn’t be friends of one of the 14 poets reading that night. Scores can range from 0.0 to 10.0.
“Zero point zero is the worst piece of shit you have heard in your life,” he said, “while a 10.0 is like literal diamonds raining from the sky.” Typically, he added, there are not many zeroes and not many tens.
He also warned judges of their alcohol consumption, which could lead them to improved grading. “Don’t do that. Try to stay as consistent as possible.”
As to the audience: They could clap, snap their fingers, stomp their feet and shout out, or boo if they don’t like the subject matter or a judge’s score.
Edmonds described the slam as a “freedom-of-speech zone,” where topics can range from unrequited love to systemic racism, so there are bound to be differences of opinion. If audience members took issue with a poem or the scoring, he encouraged the parties to “take it outside of the show,” pointing to the street. “Then you are the Berkeley Police Department’s problem,” he said, eliciting guffaws.
Many in the audience, clearly, had been to the slam before. When a couple of poets announced that they were reading new work, the audience shouted in unison, “New shit!”
Every slam also encourages poets to add “the word of the day” that the audience suggests and the emcee ultimately selects. “Bitch” lost out, with a couple of other suggestions, to “potato.” Wherever a poet inserted “potato” in a poem, the audience roared.
Born in the USA
While poems have probably been read out loud for as long as there has been poetry, slams are a relatively new phenomenon. Poet Marc Smith is credited with starting the first poetry slam at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in 1984. Three years later, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, slam was founded and in 1988, came New York City’s first slam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam took place at San Francisco’s Fort Mason.
According to a history written by founder Ekabhumi Charles Ellik on the slam’s outdated website, the event at the Starry Plough began in 1998 as a fundraiser for UC Berkeley’s college radio station, KALX. The slam was such a hit, the pub’s owners invited the organizers to host a regular show, which started in March 1999. Due to its overwhelming popularity, the show went weekly in 2000. Several organizers have run the slam since Ellik retired from actively participating in the slam in 2010.
Since founding the event, Ellik has become somewhat of a pied piper of slam poetry. A widely published poet who has toured internationally, he has organized spoken-word festivals for almost 20 years, including the 2009 Individual World Poetry Slam. He’s also an illustrator and yoga instructor and has published The Bhakti Coloring Book: Deities, Mandalas, and the Art of Playful Meditation.
In addition to its weekly individual competitions, the Berkeley Poetry Slam also has a team that competes in national and regional competitions. At National Poetry Slams, the Berkeley team has regularly finished in the top 10, including third place in 2015 and fourth in 2004. In June, the Berkeley team came in third at the Big Foot Regional Poetry Slam in Portland, which featured 16 teams. That trophy sits behind the bar.
How it works
The slam is offered almost every Wednesday, except holidays. Poets sign up at the door starting at 7:15 p.m., with the first dozen getting in free. (The rest pay $10, just like the public.)
The five highest scorers from the first round are chosen for the final round. On Oct. 18, 14 poets were on tap to read.
Slams attract anywhere from 30 to 140 people when finals are underway, resulting in standing-room-only crowds.
“Because Berkeley Slam has a rich history, we get people who have been in the slam for a long time,” Edmonds said, in particular, a lot of college students from UC Berkeley. Edmonds himself has been competing since his brother introduced him to the slam in 2016. He’s been coming almost every week since.
First prize awards are $100, second place $60 and third $40. Edmonds was proud to say that the slam recently doubled its prize awards to the current rates. “We don’t want the starving artists to be starving anymore,” he said.
What’s in it for them
For the poets, while the prize money is nice, that’s not what motivates them to get up on the stage.
“For me, it is a challenge,” said Blue, a member of the Oakland Slam team that made it to the semifinals at the National Poetry Slam in 2015 and the Berkeley team in 2016 that didn’t make it to the nationals.
“It is one thing to create art. It is another to create art in front of a room of people,” she said. “There is that appreciation of the art. And I think you are able to touch all these different people in different ways.”
L.C. has been driving from Sacramento for the past year after finding the slam on Eventbrite. “They don’t really have slams in Sacramento,” he said. He’s been performing his poetry in public since 2002.
“I like how eclectic the group is and the quality of the content. It encourages me to get better,” he said. “A lot of the poets don’t rhyme,” he said, but he does, which is sometimes looked down upon. So the challenge of upping the content of his poetry creates “an added level of difficulty. That is what I do it for.”
As L.C. illustrates, not all of the poets use their full or real names. He decided to go with initials rather than his surname after watching too many emcees struggle to pronounce it. Others may choose stage names for the age-old reason: to separate their performance lives from their personal and/or professional ones. Other poets performing that night included those named Johnny Rocket, Dr. Love and Queen Lizzie, who wore a crown hat.
Asis has been doing slams since she was a high school senior in San Diego. After starting at Saint Mary’s, she searched for local poetry slams and performed at the Oakland venue first. This was her fifth time at the Berkeley Slam, where she has placed fourth, third, second and first in the past. She came with the support of eight other Saint Mary’s students who sat in the front row and, like her, were members of the college’s cross-country and track team.
“I want to reach out to other people and make them feel seen,” Asis said, of why she gets up on the stage. “If I can do that through poetry, that’s cool.”
Between the first and second rounds, the featured performer takes the stage for a 15- to 20-minute set. That night it was Hilary Cruz Mejia, a Guatemalan immigrant whose (mostly love) poems were in Spanglish. Featured performers typically teach the free slam poetry workshop that precedes the slam, at 7 p.m.
Because one of the five finalists only had one poem to read, only four made it into the second round: Blue, L.C., Asis and a poet named Nnenna.
Nnenna’s second poem centered around trigger warnings. “Trigger warning!” she said, before announcing that she was a large and loud Black woman. Blue’s second poem, “30 Seconds,” was about a long-ago boyfriend who choked her almost to the point of passing out. L.C. recounted a loved one’s brutal death from smoking. Asis described the etymology of her given name and how she ended up embodying it.
As a motorcycle drove by outside and two men played darts, organizers added up the scores. The winners were: Asis, first place; L.C., second; and Blue, third.
Wrapping things up, Edmonds ad-libbed, again relying on humor before taking on a more serious tone.
“I don’t know, spray and neuter your pets?” he said, smiling. “Make sure you go home and hug your family members. And tell a poet you love their work.”
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