In the early 90s there was a debate in Denver on the merits of Slam poetry. Most of the old-school poets (read: older) were set against the idea of having slams in Denver because the notion of competitive poetry seemed anathema to the entire idea of poetic expression. I came down on this side as well, as I was (and still am) concerned about bastardization and homogenization dealing yet another death blow to verse art. Lucky for me they began to call it Spoken Word, and I crawled off to my cranky corner satisfied that this phenomenon would not threaten the integrity of my beloved Poetry. Meanwhile Slam competitions became immensely popular, spreading all over the country and world, and some of my worst fears came true. The motive of ‘winning’ did indeed bring out the worst humanity has to offer, one-upmanship became the order of the day, fragile egos snapped at the whim of amateur judges, a common cadence developed, and themes that should have stayed therapeutic were filleted onstage over and over until the only cards that mattered were trumps: poverty, gender, race, abuse, oppression, etc. Using these trumps to win gave rise to the term the “Dirty 30s” (30 being a perfect score in slam). To find an actual Poet under such conditions is difficult, as content and delivery count for so much more than artifice. To be fair, slam has its place, it certainly attracts more recruits than ‘poetry’ ever could, and slam makes them work hard to polish their chops. Some of these folks rise to the top, and their talent cannot be ignored. The very best of these (though not always the champions) are able to win a slam competition without resorting to the Dirty 30s. When I encounter one of these rare gems, I make it a point to say hello. Which is how I met Seth Walker.
Standing just a couple inches shy of heaven, all gangly and grinnin’, Seth is hard to miss visually. Already it’s obvious that he is a character. Then he gets onstage and begins to recite, from memory, that ace of spades type poem that you will remember for years. The Tree Poem. Ode to Female Ejaculation. When You Use Your Child As A Weapon. You will not forget these poems, because Seth has crafted them as tight as any gold record hit you ever heard, embodying the work with deliberate gesticulations designed to maintain your attention while not distracting from the written piece. Socially conscious, calculated thrusts into the abyss of modern lethargy. You may forget to applaud while your brain keeps going “wow. wow. wow.” If this happens to be at a slam competition you probably just experienced a Dirty 30s piece from the previous performer, which also may have been well crafted but insidiously pulled your heart-strings without permission. Then here comes Seth, part trickster, part duelist, part little brother, and he’ll ask you to join him on romp through life without holding a gun to your head to get you to come along. And at the end of his performance your faith in humanity may have been restored just a hair’s breadth, a nearly impossible task. Seth was birthed from deep in the metaphorical City and its scars are written across him like a roadmap to hell, grown up in Houston, street-schooled in the Bay, washed overboard in Katrina’s New Orleans. He carries the wisdom of ancient maps, back alley emperors, five years on the endless road, millennia stuck inside his head. And all the while attending slam after slam after slam across the country and winning many of them. When he last was competing (in 2012) he took fourth place at the Individual World Poetry Slam, representing the famous Café Nuba of Denver. But Seth isn’t in it just for himself. Everywhere he goes he teaches creative workshops, many of them to at-risk youth, who need him as a role model so much more than some unattainable gold-encrusted market-made rapper. Seth is very very real, his presence radiates the knife and the rose, you cannot ignore him. And flowing out of him is endless compassion, he’s been there, he knows, and he’s ready to share. Because even though he works in this competitive field of art, he’s not really there to win it for himself, he’s there to win it for the disenfranchised, the unrepresented, the under-remembered. Because Seth Walker is not just a champion of Slam, he is a Champion of Poetry.
– Marcus Palmer
Seth Walker will be the featured poet 8pm tonight (12/16) at The Laughing Goat