Arts & Life

The 2015 Long Beach Poetry Slam highlights the art of spoken word

A stew of lyrical life experiences and perspectives drop onto an audience, retorting reverberated cries and roars of agreement.

Performing from his wheel chair, first-time participant at Saturday’s Long Beach Poetry Slam Mario DeMatteo spoke about his injury.

“In 2004 I broke my neck diving into a shallow swimming pool,” DeMatteo voiced in baritones, shaking the speakers and giving the 70-plus watchers into an unforeseen reality check. “I still remember the bottom all brittle and bone piled.”

Onstage slam performances are unique from other mediums of expression, the Master of Arts in literature and writing alumnus from California State University, San Marcos said.

“It is a very powerful thing to hear someone spill their guts on stage,” DeMatteo, an editor and art director for an online poetry and performance community called Spit Journal, said. “I love film more than anything else but acting is scripted and practiced while spoken word … is very much in the moment and effecting people immediately.”

In its fourth year, the Long Beach Poetry Slam flooded Made, a boutique store off of Pine Street in downtown. The event was in part a say-anything open mic support session, and part a poet-opposing-poet rivalry tournament in which volunteer judges rated individuals on a level from one to 10.

“A slam is a poetry competition where people come up and pour their hearts out on stage and tell their stories from the deepest darkest trenches of their souls,” this year’s master of ceremonies Mayda Del Valle, a former HBO “Def Poetry” participant, joked, “and then you put a score on it and we send them home crying.”

A DJ played hip hop in between acts for the 70-plus crowd, setting the atmosphere for a room full Long Beach’s word-of-mouth artists to perform on a level unavailable to them five years prior, Appaling said.

The slam poetry scene had a presence, but there was nowhere to physically meet.

Long Beach Slam’s founder Antonio Appling refreshed this year’s get-together by holding it at this new venue that has fulfilled his desire to promote local merchants. He said that he was grateful for the Made store’s collaboration, as the hub hosts over 60 Long Beach-centric vendors, while the group struggled to have even two vendors step up at past slams.

“We started it because we realized there was a big artist community in Long Beach and they weren’t being engaged,” Appling said.

In the beginning, Appling’s open mic team, known as The Definitive Soapbox, only held small venues where people could come and speak on stage. Organizers eventually decided to step it up by creating a stage play called “Freedom Is a Voice” – a spoken word music stage play showcasing open mic regulars.

“It was just a group of volunteers [full of] people who love spoken word and people that want to be more involved in the culture in a more intrinsic level,” Appling said.

Poetry writer Edwin Bodney from Los Angeles slammed about his coming of age, which quickly created an energetic response in the crowd.

“The night my father accompanies me to a gay bar, the air is a hot cast-iron griddle,” Bodney said. “Everyone on the dance floor is a vessel of color and steam sizzling into a pallet of sex and dreaming boys.”

He said he’s taken inspiration from the works of writers such as James Baldwin, Julia Levine and Sylvia Plath, but Bodney pays attention to contemporary works of gay, black writers because he said there aren’t many headlining in the lyrical world. Bodney said it’s the spoken word aspect of slam poetry that catches his attention.

“It sort of blurs the line between visual and performing arts,” Bodney said. “Usually you would be [writing poetry] on paper, but in a performance aspect you’re doing this with your body language, with your voice.”

The night ended with an exchange of the winner’s trophy – a new event introduced this year –as last year’s winner passed the title onto Katelin Wagner from Los Angeles.

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