Battle Born Slam
Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 | 2 a.m.
It’s approaching 8 p.m. on a Monday at Beat Coffeehouse on Fremont East, where local artists, students and residents have gathered for the Human Experience, the weekly open-mic night.
But rather than acoustic guitar strums or the live mixes of a DJ, the room is filled with a different kind of beat as slam poets Kari O’Connor and Vogue Robinson stand before the microphone.
“We both have the freedom to get on and get out / but we both love this place because it’s ugly sometimes / just like America is ugly sometimes / the magic always just at the edge of the neon glow.”
As the pair finishes the final stanza of O’Connor’s original poem, “Pretty City,” the crowd rises to their feet with whoops and cheers.
They hope for the same reaction today, when the duo perform the piece in Boston before a panel of judges at the 2013 National Poetry Slam, an annual competition where as many as 88 teams from across North America and Europe compete against one another for the national team championship title.
O’Connor and Robinson make up one half of Battle Born Slam, along with locals Nathan Say, Lauren Williamson and coach A.J. Moyer, representing Las Vegas for a second year at the international championship.
Last year marked Las Vegas’ first poetry bout win against another team in the 12 years since the city has been represented at the competition. This year, however, the team’s goal goes beyond competing.
“It’s important for us to show what we’ve got here so that people understand that Vegas culture is not an oxymoron,” Moyer says. “This is a community-focused movement for us.”
The art of slam poetry is conventionally defined as competitive performance poetry in which poets read or recite original work, incorporating elements of storytelling, theater, standup and songwriting to deliver emotive performances, which are then judged on an Olympic-style numeric scale by designated members of the audience.
The scene first took root in clubs and lounges of Chicago in the 1980s and quickly spread to the rest of the country and the world, with the first National Poetry Slam taking place in San Francisco in 1990. Slam poetry become further popularized with Russell Simmons’ “Def Poetry Jam” series on HBO in the early 2000s, which spotlighted a fast-paced, hip-hop infused style of poetry.
While slam poetry’s presence in mainstream culture has since faded, the scene itself has continued to grow and evolve as an art form, with styles ranging from rhythmic recitations to dynamic partnered pieces and first-person narratives told from the perspectives of fictional or historical figures. But the focus on an active, shared experience that elicits a reaction from the crowd — be it raucous cheering or stunned silence — has remained the same.
“I’m really a lot about trying to experience, and getting the audience to experience, as much of a range of emotion as possible in my pieces, regardless of the subject matter,” says O’Connor, 35, who uses her sharp wit and boisterous personality to deliver pieces with topics ranging from cancer to Las Vegas sex workers to her crush on actor Viggo Mortensen. “Onstage, I can naturally be myself. It’s like I’m acting for people, but acting as Kari.”
That experience is part of what drew the Las Vegas native and lifelong writer to the local slam poetry scene a decade ago. Officially established in 2001 as Las Vegas Slam, the city’s own scene has ebbed and flowed over the years with the transient nature of its residents, slam poetry’s fading presence in mainstream culture and internal scene drama that stunted the momentum of its growth.
After a five-year lull, Las Vegas Slam rebuilt enough traction and community support last year to host a local semifinals and raise $2,000 on the crowd-funding website IndieGoGo to send a team — renamed Battle Born Slam — to nationals, where they placed 41st out of 72 teams and won Las Vegas’ first bout in the competition’s history.
“Knowing that we had enough support was a big mental boost for us as a team. It was great to see a scene I’ve been involved in for a decade all of a sudden have full support from a community that used to kind of roll their eyes at us and call us ‘fast food poetry,’” O’Connor says, explaining that support fueled their return to nationals this year, for which they were again able to raise funds to make the trip.
The team also attributes success to the growing seeds of the local arts and culture planted in recent years. Open mics and slam events are held multiple times a week thanks to outreach from venues ranging from the Beat to Blackbird Studios, the Container Park’s Learning Center to First Friday. In September, the group will begin providing a free youth poetry and writing workshop at the Gay and Lesbian Center of Southern Nevada.
“Seeing a slam in Vegas captures the precipice of what our arts and culture scene is becoming with the downtown revitalization,” says team member and professional poet Nathan Say, who moved to Las Vegas two years ago after establishing himself in San Diego’s slam scene. “It allows people from outside Vegas to see that even if we don’t have arts and culture like a big city like Los Angeles or San Francisco, we do have a community and a culture that’s very much thriving.”
The team hopes this year to place in the Top 20 in Boston, but their ultimate goal remains to prove that Las Vegas is more than the stigma of neon and debauchery the team faces elsewhere.
“I think slams from other cities are incredulous of us. They expect us to get off a bus wearing Elvis wigs and sunglasses,” Moyer says. “But we have culture here in this town and people who have been putting work into the arts community and developed some really incredible things here. Representing that is what’s at stake for us.”
The local slam poetry scene might still be in its nascent stages, but its ethos is fundamentally Las Vegan. Battle Born Slam’s underdog status has made it a haven for those like Say, whose gritty poems often center on his experience as queer and disabled, and for newcomer Robison, on her first team ever, who don’t necessarily fit the stylistic paradigms in cities like San Diego and Chicago, whose established, decades-old slam scenes can have their own rules and hierarchies.
“In other places, there’s not always a lot of diversity. Here, there’s an open mic almost every night. There are so many places to go to find your place in spoken word,” Robison says. “We all have our distinct styles. Vegas is so much more welcoming of that than other cities. Our team is about no-hold’s-barred individuality, and that’s what makes Battle Born unique.”