Amidst the applause and cheers, a catcaller greets the poet with a friendly, “Fuck that guy!” Hughes sweeps onto the stage, long dark hair following behind him. His black T-shirt features a Death Star-shaped Pokéball.
Hughes centers himself at the mic and closes his eyes. He can’t see the gallery of Fayetteville Underground thick with people, some filling the seats while others lean against walls and doorframes. Hughes can’t see his fellow poets, whose words on self-image, abuse and drug addiction are still ringing in the ears of the audience.
He can’t see Doug Shields, who is filling in as tonight’s host, or the five judges peppered throughout the crowd, which is almost at fire capacity. For a few seconds before roaring into a poem about sex education in the South, Hughes takes a deep breath, blocking out everything. But it isn’t out of stage fright.
Hughes doesn’t get stage fright anymore.
Hughes is performing tonight at the January Word Wars poetry slam. The five highest-scoring poets will represent Fayetteville for the next year in regional and national poetry slam competitions, money permitting. The team will be the next big step in Hughes’ slam and variety show, which attracts a larger audience every month and just partnered with Last Night Fayetteville to become a nonprofit.
Hughes began the show two years ago after he was banned from representing the Ozark Poetry Slam, the 20-year-old slam dynasty in Fayetteville. Word Wars regularly draws between eight and 12 poets a month, and it’s the only slam in the city that is recognized nationally by Poetry Slam, Inc. The core of regulars has begun to form a community of poets that shares stories of drug addiction, abuse, love, hope and disappointment.
The Word Wars slam is only one act of the Last Saturday variety show, which is also Hughes’s invention. He saw how people got tired after too much poetry and reacted by creating a show of 10-minute acts so his audience would never get bored.
Hughes is a poet, but he’s an entertainer first.
On this night, Hughes’s poem is a hit with the crowd, which roars with laughter at each example of the South’s puritanical sensibilities. Hughes likes to mess with people. He likes to turn social issues on their heads, using the weirdest framework he can imagine.
In his poetry, a wealthy Batman looks down on Occupy Wall Street and Disney characters, convinced they will get happy endings, suffer terrible fates. One of his old fallbacks is called “In Guns We Trust,” which tells stories of guns in America by replacing the word “gun” with “God.”
“I got my first God from my father before I even understood what one was. Even though it was centuries old and more than a bit worn, I believed in that God.”
When he was younger, Hughes never considered poetry – he hated the way English classes tested memorization rather than understanding. He wrote songs and lyrics before he discovered slam during his time at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. His classmate Ben Molini got onstage and performed some Taylor Mali poems. Hughes had never heard anything like it before.
Slam offered Hughes a chance to say whatever he wanted. After a year of rhyming couplets, he went to the college national slam competition, where he saw kids raised on slam from Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. He was blown away. They were practically professionals. Hughes knew he had to get better if he was going to continue. Two years later, he took control of the Hendrix slam. A few years after that, he was on the final stage of the Individual World Poetry Slam.
Hughes came to Fayetteville after he graduated from college in 2009. While part of his decision hinged on the girl he was dating, he was also drawn to the story-telling style of Ozark poets and wanted to help with the Ozark Poetry Slam in whatever way he could. He participated on the Ozark team until 2011 and helped organize the Individual World Poetry Slam when it came to Fayetteville in 2012. The next year, he was banned from representing the slam in any capacity.
At Last Saturday, however, Hughes is at home. An explosion of applause meets the final lines of his poem – “Every time I jerk off, I’m going to be thinking about Jesus.”
Pioneered in 1985 by Marc Smith in Chicago, slam poetry was a way to avoid the long-winded pieces that had dominated open-mic poetry of the time. Slam made poetry into a competition with scores and a time limit, which put the focus on the entertainment aspect of poetry. Five randomly selected audience members score two rounds of poems on a scale from one to 10. The winning poet is the one with the highest score.
The Ozark Poetry Slam, originally a branch of the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective, had its first slam in 1994 and sent its first team to compete in the National Poetry Slam in 1995. Spearheaded by Ozark, Fayetteville hosted the 2012 Individual World Poetry Slam, bringing in 70 poets from around the world.
“It was a smashing success,” said Michelle Miesse, one of three organizers of the Ozark Poetry Slam. “It was a really special event to be a part of.”
Miesse began performing slam poetry in 2005 when she started at the University of Arkansas. A few years later, she started working with Ozark. When slam poetry began in the ‘80s, the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective saw a need for a performance outlet for people bored with old-beat poetry.
The Ozark Poetry Slam hosted monthly events for years and sent poets to slams around the country. Now the slam is taking a different direction. The Ozark slam met at Stolen Glass Bar until it closed in mid-2014, said Heather Polly from the Ozark Poetry Slam.
She said the slam is no longer organizing events, and it would be up to the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective to restart the historic slam.
Without a venue, the group is focused on outreach to visiting writing groups and classrooms to teach people about combining poetry and performance to create a dynamic art form, Miesse said.
“We have this collective idea that performance and writing can help people become better people, better at social situations,” Miesse said. “Performing helps people’s writing. It also helps you learn what parts of your writing you connect with and what other people connect with.”
Hughes premiered the Last Saturday show in June 2013. Part of Hughes’ reason for creating Word Wars was so he would have a venue to perform after the Ozark Poetry Slam banned him from officially representing the slam in early 2013.
“We are no longer working with Houston because we did not want him to represent our slam any longer,” Miesse said. “He was behaving in a way that didn’t reflect the values of Ozark Poetry Slam.”
Hughes said it came down to an argument between free speech and a safe space. Above all else, Hughes wants every poet to have their time onstage.
Leaders at the Ozark slam cited people, especially women, feeling intimidated by his performances, Hughes said. However, because he was not given any names, Hughes could never figure out where he went wrong.
“What do you do when people you’ve known for three years tell you you’re an awful person?” Hughes said.
He puts on the best slam he can. Hughes intends to prove them wrong through action.
The growing popularity of Last Saturday and the Word Wars slam shows a shift in the poetry landscape in Fayetteville. Hughes modeled the slam on shows, such as Tourettes Without Regrets, he saw while touring in Oakland, California. Those shows incorporated a poetry slam with other types of performances.
“That was the hope with turning it into a variety show,” Hughes said. “By combining all these groups we could bring in more people and cross promote all these different art forms that by themselves don’t necessarily bring in that many people.”
By combining poetry with a mix of musicians, comedians and other variety acts, the show has cultivated a consistent audience of 50 to 70 people. When a snowstorm in Fayetteville threatened to cancel the show in February, people reached out to Hughes to keep it going. Only one of the three acts could make it, but Hughes pulled together an open mic and a slam with seven poets. More than 30 people scaled hills of snow and ice to reach the show.
“I’ve been to many slams in my life, and I’ve been a part of several slam scenes,” said local poet Doug Shields. “Slam in Fayetteville is booming right now. More than it ever has. The show averages around 70 people, which is unusually high even in most large cities. Houston Hughes is a wizard.”
Doug Shields – filling in for Hughes as the emcee for the night – is just trying to understand the world. He is working on completing his Ph.D. in physics and researching the spiral arms of galaxies. The arms of galaxies correlate to parts of galaxies that are hard to measure, like the black hole in the center. One thing Shields loves about astronomy is that any government telescope is required to make its data public.
To Shields, poetry has a lot in common with science because they both seek to answer impossible questions.
Shields is taking Hughes’s place as emcee for the night, peppering the break between acts with information, commentary and shameless self-promotion.
While the judges configure their scores for each poem, he gives the audience a brief history of slam through entertaining anecdotes. For sale in the back of the room is merchandise from Shields’s new project GigaPoem, LLC., a tour group for slam poets. Trickster haikus are printed on T-shirts:
“Katie’s ass got slapped.
The guy laughed and laughed until Katie whooped his ass.” And “Computer data is like that ass. Sometimes you gotta back it up.”
As a kid, Shields’s influences were 2 Live Crew, Allen Ginsberg and anyone who was willing to say a dirty word or make sex references. He loves absurdity – he says it’s the playground of words. One poem he performed at the November Word Wars revolved around porn addiction and ended with a fake climax onstage. Sometimes he uses absurdity to talk about difficult things to keep people engaged. At the February meeting of the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective, he framed America’s presence in Iraq with a person spraying a wasp’s nest – after invading the other’s home, both are sensitive on the trigger.
Shields’s first stage was the open mic at McGee’s Cafe on Wednesday nights in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1993. He went to high school at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts. The weekly poetry reading was a chance to get out of mandatory study time.
Shields admitted that he and his classmates were complete jerks, but the people at the reading always invited them back, perhaps gambling that the rowdy teenagers would grow into rational, reasonable, kind human beings.
Shields spent another few years at Southmore House, an art commune in Houston. The venue took up a quarter of a city block and had everything from a graffiti wall to clothing-optional parties.
It was there that Shields started the Southmore House slam, which eventually spun into the Houston Poetry Slam in 2000. The slam, now called Poetry in Reverse, still meets on the last Tuesday of the month at Costa’s ElixIr Lounge.
Shields has been part of the Fayetteville poetry scene since 2002. He has inhabited various offices, including slam master, co-slam master and a member of the Ozark Poetry Slam Council.
Now he is a regular at Word Wars and other open mics around the city.
One such open mic is the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective that meets once a month at Nightbird Books. The crowd is older there, a community seemingly forged over decades of hearing each other’s writing.
At the collective’s February meeting, writers shared poetry, nonfiction and short stories as birds chirped from an intricate cage in the corner.
Quiet and warm, set against shelves of glossy new books lit by strands of Christmas lights, this open mic only loosely resembles a poetry slam.
The five-minute time limit is left unenforced, letting the writers speak as long as they are willing. Each work is prefaced with an explanation of its context or the writing process that went into it. The words are beautiful, but they have little urgency.
Word Wars, on the other hand, is fast paced and reactionary. Poets are timed from their first contact with the audience and get cut off if they go too long. Beyond the judges’ ratings, people in the crowd are encouraged to react loudly to the words performed onstage. If slam is a space where performers can say whatever they choose, it is also a space where the audience can react however they like, whether it’s with cheers or boos.
Audience members at Last Saturday shuffle between the acts, buying snacks and sipping their drinks before the next round begins. The second round of Word Wars offers a new set of experiences – one woman talks about her son, another, her father. The audience reacts instinctively to each revelation with claps, laughs and cheers. Listener or performer, everyone has a voice.
When it’s Hughes’s turn again, other poets in the crowd imitate the first catcaller. His name is followed by a resounding chorus of “Fuck that guy!” Hughes’ second poem revolves around Michelle Duggar, the TLC reality star from Tontitown, who made calls encouraging people to speak out against a Fayetteville anti-discrimination ordinance in August.
The ordinance passed the city council but ultimately was repealed in a December special election. A revised version of the anti-discrimination ordinance passed the next September.
This poem is not as lighthearted as the first, and the crowd reacts with groans and murmurs rather than cheers and laughs.
Hughes personally testified at the city council meeting in favor of the ordinance and cited two transgender poets who were harassed for using the bathroom at the Individual World Poetry Slam.
Hughes argued that without the ordinance to protect transgender rights, Fayetteville might not be able to host a large poetry event again.
“When you talk about the kinds of economy that are affected by laws like this, you cannot overlook creative economy,” Hughes said at the August city council meeting. “The types of people who move to a city with laws like this are creative types.
“When you look at creative types, creative types tend not to just express themselves through their canvas or through their words, they express themselves just as often through their bodies and through the ways that they live.”
Once he finishes the poem, Hughes storms off the stage as if he doesn’t want to hear the scores.
Hughes set up tonight’s show with only a few friends. He arrived at the Fayetteville Underground at 4 p.m. – three hours before the doors opened to the public. As his iPod played Muse over the speakers, he laid down the stage, adjusted the lights and set up chairs for the audience.
Hughes hand picks the acts for the show. A central part of Last Saturday is the variety show, which attracts local bands, comedians, singer-songwriters and other acts into the art gallery. Despite being unable to pay the performers, he brings in three acts a month to bookend the poetry slam.
Until the show partnered with Last Night Fayetteville to become a nonprofit, Hughes paid the $50 prize for the slam out of pocket.
Usually, Hughes would act as the host on top of his other responsibilities. Most months he introduces the acts, keeps track of the scores and makes sure no one gets too bored. Tonight, he couldn’t bias the judges.
While Hughes doesn’t get nervous during performances, he said the crowd at his own slam would have higher expectations of him than other crowds around the country. Now he’s competing against people whom he recruited to participate in the slam. People with just as much talent and passion for poetry.
Molly Sroges won the first poetry slam in which she ever competed in a coffee shop called The Coffee Shop, against three competitors who were also performing for the first time. She was 15, and she won with a nonsense poem titled “Coming Again” that she wrote in the eighth grade. She can recite the poem to this day:
“The somethings are coming
By the sound of their drumming
The somethings are coming
The somethings are coming again…”
Sroges’s favorite poets are Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. Her favorite poem is “Forgotten Language,” which she can recite with the same gravity that she uses when delivering a powerful line onstage. She loves word play, but that’s not apparent in her performance tonight.
Her first poem, titled “What Do You See?” was inspired by her own experiences with verbal bullying and self-image issues. It’s a poem where she takes a moment in her life – her high school teacher challenging her class to avoid mirrors for a week – and using it to explore a greater theme. Image, heritage, language and mental disorder are a few of her favorite topics.
Sroges feels more comfortable onstage than anywhere else. Her voice gets deeper, more passionate, when she recites poetry. People tell her she’s a completely different person onstage, but for Sroges, it’s the one place she can be exactly who she is without any repercussions. Her ultimate goal is to work as little as possible outside of poetry.
She works as an English as a second language paraprofessional at Berryville High School.
She has the job every teacher wants – Monday through Friday with no extra meetings or paperwork – working in another teacher’s classroom with students who need help with their English.
“All the Time in the Universe” is something else entirely. It’s a new poem, one that she’s not sure she’ll do anything with. It’s a love poem, seeking closure on an old relationship. It’s dedicated to two different people, one who is in the audience. He probably doesn’t know it’s dedicated to him.
Sroges grew up in Gallup, New Mexico, and went to college at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. In March, she will be returning to her Albuquerque roots as the Fayetteville representative at the Women of the World Poetry Slam, which is a prospect that excites and terrifies her. Sroges travels 90 minutes from Berryville every month to come to Word Wars.
“That sense of being both individual and part of something bigger keeps me coming back,” Sroges said.
After the final act, a guitarist squeezes out his last melancholy note, and Shields climbs back onstage to announce the night’s winners. First place goes to Piper, a blue-haired girl who demanded the crowd put their hands up at the end of her poem about police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. Audrey got second after her voice broke during a heart-wrenching poem about an abusive relationship.
Hughes came in third.
Part of Hughes’ goal is to build a community that can experience poetry together. The five poets – Piper, Molly, Hughes, Sroges and Eris – are proof that he has succeeded.
The team’s first competition is in early March. If they win, they’ll automatically get a spot at the national poetry slam in Oakland, California, to compete against the best slam teams in the country.
“People have seen that they can get large amounts of information very succinctly if it’s communicated well,” Hughes said. “The expectation is if you have three minutes onstage and you don’t do something outstanding, then fuck you because we know that some people can.”