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Ben Barker stepped up to the microphone preparing to share a past experience. He started out soft and gentle, then, as his story went on, his voice became louder. His voice echoed off the walls and filled the air, thick with descriptive words. Finally, his story came to an end, and his voice became quiet again, ending on a sweet note. This is a typical Tuesday at night at Grounds for Coffee off of 25th Street during Poetry Slam Night.
Barker, a 24-year-old slam poet, has been competing in slam poetry contests for the past two years. The Weber State University student has been trying to get more students from WSU and fellow Ogden poets to attend the slam poetry competitions regularly. Barker has posted fliers and collaborated with the English department at WSU on how to advertise the slam in the best way, bringing in assistance from the Salt City Indie Arts Facebook page and cash prizes to inspire more poets to participate in the event.
“Poetry is like the bastard child of literature,” Barker said. “It doesn’t get a lot of respect in the literature world. That’s why I want to finish my degree here at Weber, then go on to graduate school and teach poetry on a professional level.”
Barker said that poetry slams aren’t necessarily what people think it is. He compared it to a punk rock show, with audience members interrupting performing poets. Along with three national competitions each year, Barker said he hopes to see an Ogden team emerge from the local coffee shop competitions.
R.J. Walker, 21-year-old slam poet, Barker’s roommate and author of “The Anatomy of an Overdose,” started off as a standup comedian and gradually became a slam poetry performer. Walker started at an open-mic night at the Greenhouse Effect in Salt Lake City. He used his narrative style to tell stories about his EMT experiences. He said he finds it a little hard to recruit more poets to Ogden, as the slam poetry scene is new to the community and hard to promote.
“I’ve read some stuff in Weber’s literature journal,” Walker said, “and I gotta say, I’m a little disappointed that some of these students don’t come out to perform at the shows.”
Walker said he also hopes to see an Ogden team form soon to compete at the national level. Barker and Walker are unable to be in the Ogden team, as they represented the Salt Lake City team.
Tami Porter-Jones, 38-year-old slam poet, has been involved in slam poetry for about a year now. Last March, she and her friends went to their first slam poetry competition and “fell in love.” The competition inspired Jones to expand from writing novels to writing poetry. She and Walker competed in a poetry slam together for her first time.
“Poetry is a good medium for young people, and it allows them to express their feelings in a way they couldn’t before,” Jones said. “It’s amazing how you can spend three minutes inside someone’s head.”
Jones said poetry connects people together, and it has been growing. “Even if only 1 out of 10 people who come to these slams decide to actually perform, (it) is a better outcome than none,” she said. Jones also competed at the national level, but with the Riverton team.
Slam poetry started in the 1980s at The Green Mill Jazz Club in Chicago by Marc Smith. He passed out score cards to random audience members to help establish if this would go well. To his liking, audience members were pleased with the performance, and as regulars started attending the competitions, more people have started performing as well. This tradition is still held for Salt Lake and Ogden poetry slam competitions. Ten competitors perform original pieces and five random audience members give scores for the best spoken-word poem.
Barker’s Salt Lake team participated in the National Poetry Slam in August with Barker’s original poem “Rubik’s Cube,” which was filmed and can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68K6KeQloDg.
Poetry slams are held every third Tuesday of the month at 8 p.m. at the Grounds for Coffee on 25th Street, every second Thursday of the month at The Coffee Shop in Riverton at 8 p.m., every third Saturday at the Botanica in Sugarhouse at 6 p.m., and every last Monday of the month at Weller Bookworks in Trolley Square at 6 p.m. These events are $5 to the public, $3 for students and free for performing poets.