Tonawanda News — Star-shaped lanterns and warm, glowing light fixtures hung over head illuminated tiny tables encircling the stage. Competitors sat among a small but sprightly crowd, jotting down last-minute thoughts, flipping through rehearsed material and absorbing the ambience.
As the lighting dimmed, the emcee for the night’s event approached the microphone. Chatter fell into a lull as he threw his body and vocal chords into a brief introduction that commanded the attention of the entire room: a fiery, soulful performance of Def Jam poet Saul Williams’ poem, “Ohm.”
“Scores don’t matter. Poetry is the point of the poetry slam,” said Brandon Williamson, 27, of North Buffalo, after delivering his demonstration, a teaser of what was to come.
No Shakespearean sonnets were recited at the most recent Pure Ink Poetry Slam at Merge restaurant in Buffalo, a monthly spoken-word competition held the second Wednesday of every month. Instead, there was plenty of soul food to feast on as each poet stepped on stage with uninhibited expression, full of artistic zeal.
The performance element is the difference between the conventional definition of a poetry reading and the modern twist, a poetry “slam,” said Williamson, the Pure Ink Poetry slam’s creator.
“What the slam performance does is it brings the work to life. Each poet somehow finds a way to embody the work that they’ve written. You can see the emotion behind what they’ve written, you can see the conviction behind what they’ve written,” he added.
Marquis “Ten Thousand” Burton looked down at the ground, closed his eyes and paused before speaking. His eyes were ablaze. His mouth was ready. And when he spoke, the words poured out into a soul-healing display of unadulterated emotion that echoed throughout the restaurant and won him the title of Pure Ink Poetry “Slam Master.”
Burton, 25, of East Buffalo, slams about the things most people don’t like to really talk about — topics like self-esteem, heartache, bullying and breakups. He slams, he said, because it’s a releasing experience and he believes the judges could sense that powerful release in his delivery.
“I just go at it. It’s my moment. It’s what makes me happy. So when I perform it’s like I’m giving a part of myself to the audience,” Burton said.
The Pure Ink Poetry Slam abides by national spoken-word competition rules. Each poet participates in two rounds and has three minutes to perform original content with a ten second “grace period” in which poets are safe to perform for three minutes and ten seconds without penalty. For every increment of ten seconds after the “grace period,” poets lose half a point off of their total score.
Judges are chosen randomly from the audience and poets are scored subjectively on a scale of 0-10 to one decimal point based on the strength of their performance and the quality of their content. Because the slam relies solely on crowd reaction, it is left in the poets’ hands to engage them with wit, humor and unrestricted creativity.
“(Poetry slams) are really something for the people,” said Thomas “Lazyrus” Panzarella, 28, a practicing poet from Kenmore who has won Pure Ink Poetry slams in the past. “You have to feel out the crowd. A lot of poets are real strategic about how they do it. If they see a certain amount of women (in the crowd), they’ll (think) OK, I’m going to do this particular piece because they play (the competition) like chess, like any other competitive thing.”
Slam culture in Buffalo reached its peak of activity from 2006 to 2008, when the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Just Buffalo Literary Center organized the Nickel City Slam Series, a monthly spoken-word competition where local poets and rhyme masters vied for a spot on a team which would represent Buffalo in the National Poetry Slam finals.
When the series was discontinued, many of the poets from the city scattered off and lost touch, except for a few, according to Panzarella, who has been writing original poetry since the 1990s.
“There was no league or official poetry scene at all, so a lot of poets stopped performing or they performed at smaller places, and it wasn’t even competition anymore,” Panzarella said.
Those remaining active in the slam community such as Burton and Panzarella were coaxed into performing at the first Pure Ink Poetry Slam in January of 2012 by an enthusiastic Williams. He hoped to revive the scene through the upkeep of a monthly slam.
“(The Pure Ink Poetry Slam) is something that we’re definitely going to need in Buffalo. It’s something that’s going to really build the slam community because one of the biggest issues we have with Buffalo slam poetry events is consistency,” Williamson said.
A taciturn young man offstage, but a loquacious wordsmith on, Darwin Aiken Jr., 20, East Buffalo, received a respectable third place at the competition. It was his first time competing at the Pure Ink Poetry Slam, though he is no new comer to the slam scene. His eye, he said, is still on the prize, and so he plans to come back to compete Wednesday.
“It felt like a huge weight off of my chest,” Aiken said of his performance. “It felt so great to let the words come out and speak my soul.”
Jessica Brant is a
freelance reporter for the Tonawanda News.IF YOU GO • WHAT: The Pure Ink Poetry Slam • WHERE: Merge Restaurant, 439 Delaware Ave., Buffalo • WHEN: Held 9:30 p.m. the second Wednesday of every month; next slam is March 13, poets sign up at 9:15 p.m. • COST: $5 • MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.pureinkpoetry.com.