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This article by Diana Wolf was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 14, 2000. All rights reserved.
Poetry & the Unexpected
Thursday night at the Urban Word Cafe and the tables
are gradually filling to capacity with a diverse audience rife with
expectation. It may feel like Chicago, but this is downtown Trenton.
And the audience is here to hear — urban words. This is the Urban
Word Poetry Slam, newly established beginning June 1, but masterminded
and hosted by the area’s best-known slammaster, Robert Salup.
"Close your eyes and listen."
This advice, given by a local slammer, gives a different perspective
of the poets competing at the Urban Word. Check your preconceived
notions and prejudices about poetry at the door. This is not your
"roses are red, violets are blue" garden variety poetry. This
opening-night evening offered subjects ranging from leprechauns to
urban youth angst to Mariah Carey. And these performances are no mere
"readings." They may tiptoe soft and calmly to your ears or
hit the listener in an explosion of raw energy and power.
Expect the unexpected: a grandfatherly figure reciting a poem about
a drug-addicted prostitute, or urban youth ranting and raging about
being too shy to approach women. Modest, unassuming men and women
are consumed by their art for a three minute performance, with the
slap winner sent of victorious with a cash prize.
This art form officially began as the National Poetry Slam Festival
in Chicago in 1985. It was created in the spirit of the traveling
bard: from the days when itinerant poets read or performed their art
before a crowd. Mimicking the sports match or bout, rules were devised
that are still in effect today, and can be seen firsthand at the annual
national festival, to be held this year in Providence, Rhode Island.
These rules can be and have been adapted by local slamming venues.
The Urban Word Poetry Slam owes its roots most immediately to the
long-lived but currently-defunct Great New Hope Poetry Slam, founded
in 1992 by married poets Philip and Judith Toy and supported by Karla’s
proprietor, Louis Zanais. The couple staged the first slam as a fundraiser
to travel to teach at a neuro-psychiatric hospital in embattled Romania.
By 1994, the hosting honors had fallen to poet Stan Heleva, one of
the original night’s competitors, who fine-tuned the slam rules and
raised the standards of performance. Like the National Slam, rules
such as a three-minute time limit, and no music or props to acommpany
the poet, but other rules were casually created, based on audience
response. In 1996, Salup inherited the slam and ran it with gusto
at the same time he spawned new slams and readings in Bordentown,
Princeton, and next at Grounds for Sculpture.
The monthly slams were a regular feature at Karla’s for an incredible
eight years, and also inspired a book, "Live at Karla’s."
Published in 1996 by Moving Adverb Press, and co-edited by Salup’s
wife Rosalind Salup, the anthology features 13 poets who regularly
performed (and won) at Karla’s Restaurant. Salup and Heleva are featured
in "Live at Karla’s" anthology, as well as Edwin Long III.
All three poets are contributing to the new slam venture at the Urban
Robert Salup, a draper in the family business by day, is the tireless
slammaster by nights. His parents run, Quaker Curtains, in Ewing,
as they have for over 50 years, and Salup produces window fashions
for the company.
Now 49, Salup’s poetic interest began in high school.
An English teacher at the Princeton Day School channeled his energy.
He read beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, and Lawrence
Ferlinghetti and admired their spirit and the unique way in which
they interpreted situations. He shared common ground with them in
his own writings, which were mostly political poetry.
He attended slams, but they were not regular organized events. There
were few weekly slams until he discovered the New Hope Slam at Karla’s
six years ago. Hosted at the time by Stan Heleva, it was Salup’s interest
in and admiration of Heleva’s work that initially drew him there.
He found the slam entertaining, "with a whole schtick that goes
with it," and began to attend regularly. Four years ago, Salup
took over the reins.
Salup says his wife, Rosalind, encourages him, and edits his poetry.
His parents are supportive, if not fully understanding of his work.
His father always reads the New Yorker and Salup often sees the magazine
open to a poem — "as if he’s trying to figure out what his
son is really up to."
Now Salup has brought the slam across the river to Trenton. Featured
poets this Thursday, June 15, at 8 p.m. are Morrigan’s "Wandering
Uterus Tour" and Evelyn Gildriesvoyles. Upcoming weeks feature
poets Edwin Torres and Edwin Long III on Thursday, June 22. Bret Axel
and Cory-Ellen Nadel are featured on Thursday, June 29.
"I felt that Trenton really deserved this," says Salup, "because
there was nowhere for the energy to go." Not only is Trenton a
more central location for poets and listeners — with the train
station a few blocks away and various highways leading into the capital
— but the area is also enjoying an emerging arts movement. The
slam is yet another addition to a range of events that both establishes
and sustains a community of artists.
Salup still writes poetry, but slams infrequently. His style has changed
over the past five years; no longer the angry youth, he now reads
Charles Simic, James Tate, and Robert Pinsky. These days he gets most
invitations to host slams. He has the organization, the dedication,
and the connections to arrange a weekly event.
Salup describes a slam’s premise "to take your art seriously,
but the slam’s here to have fun."
The evening begins at 8:30 p.m. with two featured poets who read their
work. A maximum of 15 competing poets sign up during the evening,
and the slamming begins around 9 p.m. A cover charge of $5 is collected
from everyone, including slammers. The funds pay the evening’s featured
poets and minor expenses, with the majority going towards the winning
slammer. A persuasive poet can expect to win somewhere between $50
and $70 for their nine minutes of inspiration.
Salup takes it upon himself to "randomly" choose the judges
from among the attending audience. As in the Olympics, judges rate
the performances from 1 (worst) to 10 (perfect). The first round features
all the poets. Then the top four scorers advance to a second round,
and the last round culminates in a head-to-head competition between
the top two scorers. "You have to want to be humbled," says
Upcoming featured poets hail from Chicago, Wilmington, New York, and
New Jersey. On the fourth week of the series, Thursday, June 22, the
program promises "Two Eds For The Price Of One: Edwin Torres and
Edwin Long III."
Edwin Torres is 40 years old, a native New Yorker whose day job is
as a graphic designer for an Internet firm. Despite both parents being
poets themselves, he was initially interested in art when he was younger.
He then discovered that many visual artists also wrote poetry, and
that’s when his interest began.
"I liked playing with the word part of my brain, not just the
visual part," he says. His poems often have a theme of duality
in them. He no longer slams, but he did 10 years ago when he got into
poetry. People often have a narrow definition of poetry, so he enjoyed
his opportunities "to go somewhere and break the rules." Torres
is published in several anthologies, books, journals, and a CD.
The second Ed is Edwin Long III, a 29-year-old Trenton native who
began writing poetry in his youth. His father wrote poetry when he
was alive, as did one of Long’s sisters. Despite poetry being accepted
in his household, he never shared his work until he discovered the
New Hope Slam five years ago. He found a nurturing poetic atmosphere
there, and had many mentors who helped guide him.
By reading aloud and listening to other poets, he found
his patterns and rhythms. "To me, it’s just about getting out
and reading. It’s about just doing it, getting it out," he says.
Then-poet Peter McLaughlin’s "rapsodies" were influenced by
one of Long’s poems. Long is currently an assistant manager designing
footwear devices in the Pedorthics industry, and has been published
in several journals and a book.
Roland Pott, co-owner and general manager of the Urban Word, is supportive
of poetry as part of the cafe’s art, music, and food venue’s multi-faceted
mission. "The urban word is a place that welcomes poetry and promotes
poetry and communication in general," says Pott. "You could
say that that is why word is part of our name."
"The live interaction between poets and the crowd is really exciting,"
he continutes. "It’s very different from reading the poem on the
page. It breaks down barriers between the words and the writer, because
when the writer is performing the words, it’s as if the poets become
their words embodied right there in front you."
This slam has met a demand because the cafe was almost full to capacity
the first night. "Poetry changes according to the times,"
says Pott, who sees oral performances like this making poetry more
accessible, more up front, in-your-face, and more social.
Social is an accurate way to describe the crowd that
attends this slam. While the table arrangement in Urban Word is a
bit formal for casual conversation, few people want to chat during
the poets’ mesmerizing performances. During the breaks, however, people
mingle and socialize, especially outside in "Smoker’s Alley"
(Urban Word is delightfully smoke-free within). Inside or out, people
greet old buddies, comment on readings, and discuss local or topical
It is a love of the art for which people will travel up to an hour
to attend, and there is a core group of regulars who follow slams
to either read or to listen, as varied as the poetry itself. The crowd
is generally composed of educated 30 to 40-somethings. You can find
teachers mingling with students, waiters sitting next to copy editors,
and bankers drinking with business analysts and postal workers. Among
these poets and supporters of the arts, everyone is welcome to sit
at your table.
Says Salup: "What I’m just trying to do regionally is help channel
some of the art that’s out there that’s not seen, that’s not heard."
At the slam’s inaugural evening, the well-deserved winner was Kirk
Nugent, already a chamption of New York’s Nyorican Cafe competitive
slams. He hit his listeners hard with the galvanizing closing line,
"I am my own goddamn hero." As he stomped off the stage with
his thundering, raging pride, the silent audience struggled the breathe,
as if they had been the one speaking. Nugent’s truth, his challenge,
crashed into everyone. The audience paused — Should they cheer,
or should they bow down? And then they exploded in applause.
Satisfied with his production, Robert Salup looks forward to taking
slams to the next level. "I hope someday to see poetry become
an Olympic event," he says, without irony.
— Diana Wolf
609-989-7777. www.urbanword.com. Robert Salup hosts every Thursday
in June. Featured poets are Morrigan’s "Wandering Uterus Tour"
and Evelyn Gildriesvoyles. $5 cover. Thursday, June 15, 8 p.m.
Thursday, June 22, 8 p.m. Bret Axel and Cory-Ellen Nadel are
featured, Thursday, June 29, 8 p.m.
Road, Hamilton, 609-689-1089. Featured reading in the outdoor arbor
by poets Cecelia B. Hodges and Christopher Marchetti, with music by
Marc Daubert, founding member of Phish. Also meets Saturday, July
22, Saturday, August 19, with an end-of-season slam on Saturday, September
9. Saturday, June 17, 1 p.m.
Ewing, 609-882-6047. Every Wednesday through June 21. $5 cover. See
story page 33.
609-897-9250. Three poets are featured, followed by an open read,
on the second Monday of every month.
of each month at Lawrence Public Library on Darrah Lane, in Lawrenceville,
at 7:30 p.m. Workshop is open to all; bring 20 copies of the poem
you are going to read.
Robert Salup hosts a reading and discussion group third Tuesday of
each month. Tuesday, June 20, 8 p.m.
609-275-2897. Open reading last Monday of every month. No registration
is needed; newcomers and listeners are always welcome from 6:30 to
609-924-8777. A night of music, poetry, prose, and comedy, all for
$1, on the fourth Saturday of each month, beginning at 9 p.m.
Trenton, 609-989-7777. Spoken word event with Demetrius tha Poet and
This poetry group meets every Tuesday at 8 p.m. at various locations
around Princeton, and newcomers are always welcome.
I came back as a Buick
Slicked back chrome covered
1951 Brylcreem jet black
With yellowing white
Leather interior and a big
Steering wheel —
She came back
As a Corvair
Early 60’s — everything in the rear
Yellow as the sun
Dual exhaust — No rust — Good paint
I found her getting brakes in the left service bay of
The Furlong Getty —
Her name was Volition — I called
Her "Pull My Daisy"
— Robert Salup
at Karla’s: An Anthology of Popular Performance Poetry , Moving
Adverb Press, 1996.
A Wedding of Words" is a spoken word and poetry
series new to the area, happening on Wednesday evenings at H&H Lounge,
530 Ingham Avenue, in Ewing. The inaugural four-week series began
April 19; the second is currently running through June 21.
The series, masterminded by Sandra Kimbrough of the Kimbrough Company,
a marketing firm with offices in Ewing and New York City, opens with
two or more featured poets, followed by an open mike. Host for the
current four-week series is self-proclaimed hipster poet Christopher
Johnson, aka Transit Thought. Kimbrough and Johnson were invited by
the H&H Lounge to bring a different kind of entertainment to the Ewing
Each evening is loosely defined by a theme taken from the traditional
and familiar components of a wedding, with a lively twist:
Old," "Something New," "Something Borrowed," and
"Something Old" and "Something New" are self
Here, age 30 serves as the dividing line between "seasoned"
poets and the new, up-and-coming voices. But "Something
which takes place this Wednesday, June 14, is unusual in the way it
features poets performing favorite works written by others.
is a perennial favorite, but this reading will also feature powerful
poems by African-American luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Nikki
Giovanni, and Don L. Lee. And here, as with the slam, the skill of
an effective delivery is part of the challenge.
One of the pleasure of working in poetry, says Kimbrough, is
young writers, most of whom are intimately familiar with rap and
to the roots of their very art form.
"Kids today love rap but many don’t know it’s poetry," she
says. "Rap is poetry, but often they think it just dropped onto
the planet and landed in their laps. Many of the same rhythms and
use of vernacular and slang and phraseology are devices that much
earlier poets had also employed. I’m trying to help youngsters bridge
The final evening in the "Wedding of Words" series,
Blue-light," coming up on Wednesday, June 21, features poets
passionate, romantic and provocative poetry. Kimbrough uses the idea
of "blue-light" to conjure the erotic and the sensual. This
is the no-holds-barred evening of new poems by area poets.
A graduate of Princeton Day School, Kimbrough grew up in Ewing. While
still in high school she competed for the New Jersey State Poetry
recitation competition for three years, winning first prize 1980.
In high school, she began writing her own poetry, and also got an
effective introduction to the spoken word arts as she commuted to
an internship at the Negro Ensemble Theater in New York.
After earning her degree at Thomas Edison College in
1991, Kimbrough began working in film production. She has traveled
widely and lived in Italy and Japan. She started the Kimbrough Company
in 1996, marketing and communications company that specializes in
public relations marketing and special events.
"I’m trying to cultivate audiences and introduce people to a new
form of entertainment," says Kimbrough. "It’s so critical
that young people be exposed to poetry, that is one of the keys to
what separates a youngster’s concept of what is available to
"We’re setting our series in a part of town not currently
an artistic area. If you’re going to have an artistic renaissance
in the area, you can’t center it only downtown. It’s got to be
throughout the city."
Kimbrough is currently working on a project with Granville Charter
School students that she calls "If Memory Serves Me… Black
Poetry by Heart." The project both introduces the students to
the rich literary history of black poetry and re-introduces
— a pleasure that can last a lifetime — into the curriculum.
"We want them to add that to their arsenal of verbal power —
even if it’s the ability to call someone a jerk in 50,000 ways,"
— Nicole Plett
Ewing, 609-882-6047. $5 cover. "Something Borrowed,"
June 14, 8 p.m. "Something Blue-light," Wednesday, June
21, 8 p.m.
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