This is the new age of poetry. No longer a stodgy medium, tightly bound within a world of fashionable salons and Grecian urns, this age can be exciting, heartbreaking, and above all, real.
Look at the faces in the audience of a Def Poetry Jam performance. The demographics of a typical Def Jam performance range widely, from 80-year-old Jewish women to young African-American kids. Flaco Navaja, one of the nine poets on tour with Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam believes they all take away something from the experience.
"They're responding to the words, the messages and stories we're telling," said Navaja. "It may be theatrical and entertaining, but first and foremost we're writers."
The Def Poetry Jam comes to Colorado on Thursday, Jan. 20, at Denver's Paramount Theatre.
Originally an HBO broadcast, the show took off on Broadway, winning the 2003 Tony Award for best special theatrical performance. Nine performers from the original television and Broadway shows were tapped to tour the country, showcasing the best in slam, or spoken-word, poetry. Appearing on tour are Georgia Me, Black Ice, Lemon, Poetri, Staceyann Chin, Suheir Hammad, Navaja, Shihan and Ishle Yi Park.
The poets are largely from urban areas -- New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia -- and the resulting ethnic makeup is as diverse as their cities would imply. They perform solo as well as ensemble pieces, begging one to ask how a multiperson poem is done. Navaja explains it as a very open art form.
"It's sort of like being in a Greek chorus or an opera, but it's spoken," he said. "For instance, the duet I do with Lemon is really quick, with us finishing each other's sentences."
The shows are very scripted, with each poem performed time and time again.
"We kick the same poems and group pieces at each performance, but there's room to improvise within a piece, or on your delivery," said Navaja. "It's a blessing to me. Coming from a theater background, I see it as practice. I get to see something different in my pieces every day."
Navaja credits his brother, the first person he ever saw "kick" a poem, for introducing him to spoken word. He also comes from a long tradition of Nuyorican poets, a group of New York-Puerto Rican poets who first gathered in the 1970s.
He started by trying to write raps, but, restrained by the beat, found the form difficult to master. He turned to poetry instead as a way to get stuff off his chest, and his poems tend to center on social commentary.
"It comes from a storytelling background. I like to expose my community to the world, and vice versa," he said. The topics widely vary, from a gorgeously raw love poem to Navaja's transition from "a God Bless America kid" to a black militant.
Russell Simmons, the media mogul behind Def Jam, has worked for decades on bringing urban culture to the masses, beginning with his groundbreaking Def Jam record label. The (hip) hop, skip and a jump from rap to spoken-word slams isn't a large one, says Navaja.
"I feel like it's one and the same -- the rhyme itself is poetry first. Def Jam, the label, lends instant street credibility, so that kids who wouldn't normally check it out are going. Russell has just been exposed to a scene that's been here quietly for a long time now. None of us [Def Jam Poetry tour performers] are new to this -- we've been cutting our teeth for years."
Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam
Thursday, Jan. 20
Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm, Denver
Doors 6:30 p.m., show 8 p.m.
$25-$39; Call 303/892-7016 Ticketmaster outlets or www.hob.com