Slam poetry began in the 1980s, in Chicago, as an alternative to more staid academic-poetry readings. With its combination of plain talk, impassioned performance, and live judging, it was an exciting new scene for fans and spoken-word performers alike, and it spread nationally.
Slam came to Pittsburgh in the early ’90s, and it still has a home here. But two long-time practitioners also saw an opportunity for a look back. “In the Shadow of the Mic: Three Decades of Slam Poetry in Pittsburgh” (Bridge and Tunnel Books), a new book co-edited by Jesse Welch and Adriana E. Ramirez, celebrates the people, places and verses that have made Pittsburgh’s slam scene special.
Ramirez, who grew up in Texas, came to Pittsburgh for graduate school in 2006, at age 22, and immediately dove into the thriving slam culture, with poets competing in front of judges. For the next decade, she was a notable performer as well as the Slammaster or co-Slammaster for the Steel City Slam, whose teams competed nationally.
Ramirez only gradually learned of the scene’s history, which traces to now-defunct venues like Wilkinsburg’s Turmoil Room and the Oakland Beehive. For “In the Shadow of the Mic,” she interviewed Pittsburgh slam pioneer Christina Springer, as well as poet and fellow Slammaster D.J. Brewer, and Justin Strong, owner of East Liberty’s late, lamented Shadow Lounge, which hosted the slam for more than a decade.
Ramirez, an accomplished nonfiction writer, said the book is “like a time-traveling machine that’s getting to go back and kinda get a sense of, ‘Oh, this is what it was like to live in Pittsburgh and to be at this moment in time for these individuals.'"
Where academic poetry can sometimes feel abstract, slam poetry more often trades in personal dramas and fiery social commentary, often with salty language. “In the Shadow of the Mic” provides poems from 30 artists spanning all three decades.
Springer’s “Into My Dark Spaces” begins:
I consist of unseen minutiae.
Half notes in plantain seeds.
Pig’s feet doing the foxtrot in a pressure cooker.
I dance America that way.
Springer is one of several poets represented in the book who competed in the long-running National Poetry Slam (which suspended operations because of the financial problems of its parent nonprofit, Poetry Slam Inc.). Another such poet is Welch, who has competed in the National Poetry Slam for Chicago, Seattle and Pittsburgh. With Ramirez, he also co-founded the Nasty Slam, a more informal competition.
In an introductory essay, Welch claims a unique identity for Pittsburgh’s slam. “Pittsburgh is a city full of working-class, badass poets. We write because we need it. We listen because it gives us life,” he writes.
Other poets with work in the book include Rhetorical Artz, David Harris, Kiza, Leslie Ezra Smith, Kelli Stevens Kane, and Stacey Waite.