On Tuesday nights, the crowd gathered at the Spider House Cafe & Ballroom isn’t waiting for a band to tune its guitars. They’re not waiting for the sarcastic banter of a comedian to fill the room, either. On Tuesday nights, the crowd gathers to witness a different art form altogether.
Poetry slam is competitive poetry. At Austin Poetry Slam at Spider House, poets from all over the city recite their works in front of an eager crowd. The poets are judged by criteria such as presentation, depth of writing and the extent to which they emote while performing. When a poet walks up to the mic, the DJ’s music fades into the background. Unlike the aimlessly chattering audiences at music shows, the crowd falls silent once the poets begin speaking. There is a palpable energy that fills the entire room. The crowd acts as a seismograph, reacting to the emotional highs and lows of each poem with snaps and cheers.
Jomar Valentin, who was part of Austin Poetry Slam’s 2011 national team, writes personally but also, as he asserts, accessibly.
“I write a lot about gay life and gay rights,” Valentin said. “I try not to be preachy; I try to be funny about it. It’s bringing awareness to it, as well as being able to express yourself. It’s a great platform.”
Some poets, such as Valentin, come to spread a message. Others, such as Dave Webber, come to sort out their personal troubles. Tim Clark, a retired Austinite who found out about poetry slam through his daughter, wants to accomplish something different with his poetry.
“Sometimes, things just happen. I want to see if I can communicate how that made me feel,” Clark said, referencing a poem he wrote about a woman with cerebral palsy. “I want to communicate that to a general audience so they can get something out of it too.”
Austin Poetry Slam started in 1994 and, four years later, hosted the National Poetry Slam, which brought national attention to the group. Gloria C. Adams, secretary of Austin Poetry Slam, said Austin has some of the best poets in the country.
“We have a really robust crowd full of people who are truly interested in being here,” Adams said. “This is a great place to hear things that will resonate with you.”
Adams, a seasoned poet who competed at last year’s national competition, said the basic premise of poetry slamming is not only helpful to poets but also essential to their well-being.
“There aren’t that many places in the world where people are interested in hearing the dark truths about yourself,” Adams said. “One thing I really like about the poetry world is this emphasis we put on telling your truth, on telling what’s happening to you and what you’ve experienced.”
Austin Poetry Slam takes place weekly and not only showcases local talent but also features touring poets in its lineup, such as award-winning poet Andrea Gibson. But, whether it’s the most famous poet in the world or a local writer who’s trying their hand at slamming for the first time, Webber likes what poetry does for everyone, even himself.
“I could pay someone a hundred dollars to lay on a couch for an hour every week," Webber said. "I’d rather pay three bucks and go onstage and make people understand what’s going through my head.”