Towards the end of a lengthy chat about the upcoming 5th Annual Savannah Spoken Word Festival with Spitfire Poetry Group co-founder Clinton Powell, I ask the dedicated local booster of performed poetry a hypothetical question.
If, I say, you could be granted any one wish for next year’s 6th Annual Spoken Word Fest, what would it be?
The willowy, reserved —but driven— Powell seems taken aback for a moment. “One wish,” he muses with a slightly incredulous look.
Sure, I say. Anything at all. What one change would you make to this, one of the smaller —but more unique— annual cultural events in the area?
“Well,” he begins, hesitantly. “I’d want to make sure that everyone in Savannah and the surrounding areas knew all about our event far in advance. And I’d also want to be able to hire (poet, writer, actor and musician) Saul Williams.”
“And, I’d want an unlimited budget,” he adds.
No fair, brother, I say, pointing out that he’s now moved on to a second —and arguably a third— wish. Then again, I note, an unlimited budget could pay for tons of advertising, and cover the cost of hiring the star of the Sundance and Cannes Film Fest award-winning 1998 indie feature Slam.
“Well,” says Powell with a sly laugh, “then let’s just make it an unlimited budget. Start the donations now!”
This award-winning playwright’s education-oriented community organization will need a lot of generous patrons if its Annual Spoken Word Festival is to realize his ambitious dream: namely, that it grow to become one of the highest profile cultural events in a city increasingly crowded with such things.
“Five years ago, I wasn’t sure this Fest would continue and still be going now,” he admits. “But Savannah has always shown us a lot of support and a lot of love. We do hope we’ll become as big as the Savannah Music Festival or at least comparable, you know? We’d like to be as accepted as some of the bigger festivals one day.”
Mainstream acceptance can be awfully hard to come by, however. Especially for an art form that on some level must exist somewhat outside of that mainstream in order to remain the powerful and potent societal force which it has traditionally been. Spoken Word, or Performed Poetry as it’s also known, has historically been one of the purest and most personal forms of expression made available to mankind.
It can serve as a direct window to an author’s heart and soul — and flourishes in a society such as ours, where freedom of speech is protected and encouraged.
Powell says that for him, the beneficial aspect of putting one’s innermost thoughts to paper and then speaking them aloud for all to hear is what first captivated him about the spoken word movement. It’s also what continues to invigorate him about that world today. He feels certain there are many others out there like himself who may have never exposed themselves to this creative outlet, but for whom it would do a world of good.
“This goes back to me being an educator and an artist,” he explains. “The therapeutic part of the performing arts cannot be underestimated. Being able to write something down and then release it in front of other people is extremely beneficial. It helps heal you. Then, after you have healed yourself, you can use the very same piece of art to make people laugh and love.”
Powell expects there will be plenty of laughter, positive feedback, contemplation and excitement stirred up by the events contained in Spitfire’s three-day-long showcase, which takes place this year in downtown Savannah at The Sentient Bean, the Metro Coffee House and at the lodge of the International Longshoremen Association 2046 in Garden City.
These events include two competitive Poetry Slams (one for kids and one strictly for adults), an Open Mic showcase hosted by Ms. A.T.M. of W.O.R.D and Marquise Williams of Spitfire’s Junior Company, and a highly anticipated closing night revue of local dance groups and musical artists, featuring a special headlining appearance by the Charlotte National Slam Team of Tavis Brunson, Carlos Robson, Boris “Bluz” Rogers and Mike Simms.
“Those guys are just hot, man,” offers Powell. “Every year there is a slam competition across the country, and it’s usually done by cities. Last year a team from Charlotte, N.C. competed against about 30 other teams and they won.”
“It’s like the Superbowl of performed poetry and right now, they’re the champions.”
Powell laments that more folks in our immediate area aren’t hip to what’s going on in the local spoken word community, which he notes “used to be a really hot place for poets,” but whose profile has decreased somewhat since many of the better known and rising stars on the national scene who used to reside here have since moved on.
“A lot of this is about getting the word out,” he says. “Some people don’t really understand the terminology, either. Take the word ‘slam,’ for instance. That can mean a lot of things, but in the poetry world, a slam is a competition. The term ‘spitting’ —or ‘spitting fire,’ that we adapted for our organization— is a positive. Someone who spits fire is someone who’s a hot poet on stage. That’s why we chose that for our name. We aspire to be the hottest poets on the East Coast.”
“It’s also important for folks to know that the world of poetry encompasses so many different kinds of people. You have text poets who just concentrate on the written word, and then there are others who are more of performing artists. I’m a poet. You’re a musician. We both want to be able to share our art with others.
“Spitfire does a lot of educational work in the schools with young people, and I’ve seen the act of sharing poetry bring kids together. We’ll have kids from Savannah Christian and Mercer Middle School do their own poetry in front of each other, and they wind up getting closer through these Open Mics. Sometimes it’s not till they get up and spit that they truly see just how similar and how different they are.”
For those who may be curious about attending a spoken word show like the ones Spitfire puts on during this annual event —and, it should be noted, regularly throughout the year— but don’t know quite what to expect from such an experience, Powell says it’s definitely nothing like the stereotypical image of a Maynard G. Krebs-era beatnik slacker reciting dour couplets on a dimly-lit speakeasy stage.
If anything, the atmosphere is more closely akin to HBO’s well-known Def Poetry Jam series: feisty, intense, soul-baring, occasionally raunchy and relatively unpredictable.
“I always say it’s like Kool-Aid with a whole lotta sugar,” he chuckles. “It’s like having seven or eight espressos. It’s off the chain. This isn’t like reading normal poetry. It’s gonna take you to the tenth level and then beyond!”
“The performance aspect is extremely important. Some people may write very elementary poetry, but they get high scores in slams because of how well they handle themselves on stage. For example, ‘Georgia Me’ is a Broadway, Tony Award-winning Def Jam poet. She does her thing. She and Queen Sheba are probably two of the dopest ladies in the game, both living in Atlanta now.”
After a few years of concentrating so much on outreach to youngsters, Powell says he hopes his organization will be able to focus on mounting more adult-oriented poetry events over the next 12 months. He does note, though, that the preparation and skills exhibited by many of Spitfire’s student participants can only bode well for the future of not only his organization, but of the local spoken word scene in general.
“The ones who are coming up behind us now are great,” he avows, nodding his head. “They’ve learned a lot from us and coupled it with their own styles. These little jokers are hot.”
5th Annual Savannah Spoken Word Festival
See Week at a Glance this issue for individual events