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Making (verbal) love in the club at Poetry

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Photo: Marcus O'Brien

His story reads like a heart-warming Disney film: A group of ragtag, inner-city underdogs band together and follow their inspired leader over varied obstacles to an ultimately miraculous triumph.

It’s a true story, and one worth hearing.

A skinny, middle-aged British black man who calls himself Knowledge and claims to be the first documented rapper in England was sitting in an LA coffee shop when he came up with the concept of a battle of the sexes poetry slam. Knowledge had been a published poet since, in his own words, “the turn of the millennium," and was a regular at the largest poetry venue in the country, Da Poetry Lounge. He’d also had one of those odd, life-altering conversations with an older man who told him: “You’re going to make poetry accessible to the mainstream, make it more palatable to the masses.”

And so, like the protagonist of many a film, Knowledge went on a quest. That journey took him to Vegas, where he heard a radio announcement for Poetry Nightclub in Caesar’s Palace. Through mutual acquaintances he got in touch with the club’s owner. The stars had aligned.

Testosterone vs. Estrogen, a weekly Thursday night poetry slam inside Poetry nightclub, has been going strong for eight months, and about 80 poets having participated.

I happened to attend on the night of the quarterfinals for the national championships, Poetry Slam, Inc. (PSI), which take place next month in Madison Wisconsin. In 2006, Nevada took a dismal 59th place out of 63 teams. Nevada didn’t even send a team in ’07 or ’08. “We will have one in 2009” Knowledge assures me.

Making the team is a battle in itself. I witnessed a ten-round slam of four men versus four women. Next week the group will be cut from eight to six, and then finally a team of three with two alternates. “I see it as Ocean’s 11,” Knowledge says. “I need to get a team together to take the trophy. The only way to take it is to go hardcore.”

But Knowledge’s vision is grander than seeing the national trophy in Poetry nightclub. He raves like he’s high, which is possible – high on drugs, poetry or both.

I see verbal gladiators in the Colosseum. They’re going to go out there in the center behind the velvet rope and command attention. People will talk about a poet versus a poet like they talk about the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Poetry needs to be on that level. People aren’t feeling poetry like they should. I want George Wallace in this venue. . . Eddie Murphy, Eddie Griffin-they’re going to be the feathers in my hat. I want to get rappers like Snoop up in here. I wanna get those cats up in here, you know what I’m saying? Pay-per-view films, Madison Square Garden, Caesars Palace. I could take this to the film festivals.

His cornrowed cohort, a poetry slam regular who is a master at melding hiphop and poetry, Y.A. Poet (Young American Poet, a “poemcee”) interjects: “Don’t even trip, I have a camcorder.” Knowledge continues: “I’m going to make that 60-year-old man a prophet.”

So far Testosterone vs. Estrogen is doing well. The beautiful room, with chandeliers hanging from a ceiling painted with roses and the furniture covered in crimson velvet, was full with about thirty people. Each paid a $5 cover to enter, yielding one of the biggest weekly draws thus far, about $150 total.

Knowledge is about everything but the money. He pays the photographer, who Knowledge says is worth way more than he pays him. He pays the DJ. He pays the door hostess and the comedian host (who also isn’t in it for the cash. He ran off at the end of the night without getting paid in a ski mask, knee high socks, spandex shorts and a cape and with his soft white torso exposed). The rest of the money is divided up amongst the winning team. “It’s straight socialism up in here!” Knowledge says. This night, the men narrowly beat out the women with a collective 327.7 points over the females 320.4 points. Generally the tables turn the other way; the women usually win over the men at a 2-to-1 rate.

Several members of the audience who are randomly selected to be judges score the poets on a scale of 1 to 10. The women typically want the women to win, and the men favor the men. Every week a different comedian hosts the slam. Knowledge regularly visits the Bunkhouse Saloon and recruits the people who make him laugh. “We’ve had some crazy moments up in here. Anything can happen at any point. I gotta be on my improv as well. Someone did a mixed martial arts Bruce Lee stunt. Someone pretended that their mic was Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. A host from the Bunkhouse came in a diaper and put his crotch in someone’s face. I push the envelope, that’s what I’m about,” he says. “Poetry gets really heavy. I don’t want people to say ‘I wanted to have a good time and you got all deep on me.’ I weave poetry and comedy in and out.”

Performance poetry was invented in the ‘80s and popularized by Marc Smith, the blue-collar founder of the poetry slam movement. The poems are original, completely memorized and performed passionately. Knowledge recalls reciting a poem on Valentine’s Day about his search for his Shakti Goddess (of tantric sex) and handing out roses to women in the audience. “Poetry needs to be a spectacle.”

Knowledge is on a mission to convert everyone to the cult of the spoken word. “Every week a new face comes out of the woodwork. All this talent came out of nowhere. There are 2 million people in Vegas; how do you think there’s not creative talent up in here? People don’t think of Vegas as a city that has poetry, but with the level of talent we have here, we can put Vegas on the map, poetically speaking.”

And as the driving force behind the event, Knowledge is proud of the progress many poets have made. Rappers have come through the doors wary of doing poetry, and learned to embrace it. “I’ve seen poets bloom here.” He talks of Trinity, an obvious crowd favorite, who has earned a few perfect 10s and who, Knowledge thinks, is talented enough to take the team to first place at PSI. Before coming here, she frequented Poet’s Corner and read from a paper. Last week she did the splits onstage. “She went from a caterpillar to a butterfly,” Knowledge remarks.

Trinity: “Call me by my name, ‘Poet,’/I’m trying to keep you from being exploited/By the same pimp/We’re trying to get the bitch back/And make her a lady again/Make her enjoy vegetarian/Make her cover her ass in public. . . Viacom pulls all your time, like ‘lay back on this couch and deep throat this cock’. . generational ADD…the revolution will not be televised. . . live the life of blackness and write about it. . . grab your balls and be a man, grab your ovaries and be a woman. . . use your mental capacity to it’s fullest.”

Jeska: “I was walking home and saw you there/That’s when I saw your perverted stare…you threw me in your van full of trash and porno mags…a smell I will never forget…I will have your body sliced & diced. . I will torture you, I will have you raped over and over and over again/How the F-CK does it feel to become a victim?/Burn slowly, burn in flames/How does if feel to drown in shame?

Kayla: “This is called the f-ck poem. When you hear it, you’ll understand why. F-ck forever…f-ck love…f-ck let’s just be friends…f-ck why the ocean’s blue…f-ck my f-cking life. . . and f-ck everyone who wants to f-ck me.”

Verse: “Do you guys like getting high? I do. So high that I can snap an angel’s wings/I can drink the rain before it hits the earth/and give God a high-five.”

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