Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Austin Poetry Slam's 'Write Bloody Poetry Month' will highlight some of area's best

Luke Quinton

Outside the Spiderhouse Ballroom (formerly United States Art Authority, and a plasma center before that, says one of the bartenders), before Austin Poetry Slam's weekly show, two poets sit just inside the gate.

One of them, Keith, hands me a sticker. It's a miniature picture of him in black and white, with a website and his slam name — Ruckus — in big letters.

The second poet introduces himself as Rooster.

The scene buzzes. Poets greet each other with hugs. Inside, the stage is lit red. The DJ is setting up, the organizers fix the P.A.

It's one of the few events in town that still deserves to be called a "scene."

November is a big month for Austin Poetry Slam, which is hosting shows from some of the country's most renowned slam poets, Buddy Wakefield, Anis Mojgani, Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz and Andrea Gibson. They've dubbed it "Write Bloody Poetry Month," after the publishing house Write Bloody, where all four publish poetry.

On this particular night the format is "Spitfest," a standoff where the best poet moves to the next round.

Not only will the poet move on, but there are rewards, explains Preston Swincher, whose stage name is Mal. The poets "are out for blood tonight," he says.

That's because the winner will be the opener for one of this month's big names.

I can't say whether that night's slam was bloodier than usual, but there is no doubt that this kind of intensity is what pulls slam poetry into a niche of its own.

It's one of those activities that is both brutal and supportive — like literary rugby. In fact, Swincher says, being "cut-throat is what makes it fun."

It must be fun, because Swincher says it took him a year of performances — one a week — before he thought he was actually good.

And he's not being bashful. That's how he earned his nickname, Mal — as in, "malo" — given to him in Spanglish by a Dallas announcer.

The subject matter, for a lot of poets, is raw and personal. Some adopt a persona, like "Good Ghost Bill" or "Cupcake." Others just keep their names. But they all reveal elements of their inner thoughts, childhoods, sex lives and work lives that people don't usually share, and that the audience may not even care to hear.

It's this raw emotion that draws people to these shows every week.

Mila Micha, pulled from the audience to help judge, says she comes "to hear people speak the truth about their lives."

There is a strong social and political current too, and slams, for Micha, are a place where she comes to "hear the issues of our time."

Slam poetry in Austin is one of the country's "powerhouses," figures Danny Strack, the current "Slammaster" of APS.

Between APS and Neo-Soul, the other Austin organization, the city's scene is vibrant enough to hold this weekly slam, with a crowd of 150, and Neo-Soul's weekly open mic.

And two of this month's featured poets, Mojgani and Aptowicz, have just moved here.

"To have Anis (Mojgani) move here was really quite a coup," says Strack. "He's as famous as you can get by being a slammer — which," he says, "isn't that famous."

APS' Winnie Hsiah says Aptowicz "literally wrote the book on New York City slam poetry." She also won a 2011 NEA fellowship.

Wakefield has twice been crowned national champion, and the other performers have appeared on national radio and HBO. His Austin concert will feature aerial dancers from the east side group called Sky Candy.

Austin's poets once had a reputation as "funny nerds," says Strack, but now they're better known for their imagery.

That can make for some pretty heady speech — sometimes the poets sound nearly Shakespearean.

And to find that emotional material, poets mine their deepest frustrations. Some come on stage to exorcise demons; many have a strong "emo" aesthetic, the sort of bald idealism and confessional that induces cringes among critics.

Some are merely hilarious, performing something like stand-up comedy.

And the whole event is rewarding. It's among the most multicultural events in town, and there's just something intrinsically dramatic about watching performers take risks, forget lines, get their momentum urged on by snaps and hollers from the crowd.

This crowd skews younger than most, which makes sense for an art form that is still feeling its way in the dark. But it's an exciting stage to witness.

The rules are mostly unwritten — so you watch poets, great and struggling, step on stage each week to break them.

'Write Bloody Poetry Month'

What: Buddy Wakefield, Anis Mojgani and members of Austin Poetry Slam. Special appearance by Sky Candy Aerial Arts

When: 8 p.m. today

Where: ND at 501 Studios, 501 N. Interstate 35

Cost: $15

What: Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 29

Where: Spiderhouse Ballroom, 2906 Fruth St.

Cost: $5

More information: www.austinslam.com