Hilarious and heartbreaking
Telling intimate personal stories onstage, a Sacramento slam poetry team preps to compete nationally in Chicago
Ike Torres stood on Luna’s modest stage, hand up in a Shakespearean pose. “I am money, hear me cha-ching,” he projects. It’s the fourth time in his poem, and by now the audience has joined in.
For this one, “Money On Shrooms,” he personified cash as a way to examine its overwhelming influence on every aspect of our lives, coloring it with humor and dark truths.
“I got folks breaking their backs ‘n’ shit,” he chanted. “Strippers shake, shake, shaking their ass ‘n’ shit.” Apart from joining Torres for that one refrain, the crowd was silent and hanging on every word. When he finished, they erupted with applause.
The judges at this poetry slam score him a near, but not quite perfect 30. Torres was one of a handful of slam poets that night on the third Friday at Luna’s Cafe & Juice Bar. Now on its fourth year, the night is officially known as The Sac Unified Poetry Slam. By the way: The judges are randomly selected audience members, and they change every month.
Other poets included CharRon Smith, who delivered a funny poem about awkwardly trying to ask a girl out; David Loret de Mola (aka AndYes) talked about being fat and unabashed in “Pretty Thoughts (To Those Who Hate)"; and Jeanette Sem (aka J-Rowe) kills that night with “Woman": “Tell ’em to be woman is to cross legs with grace while baring the burdens of life.”
After the standard three rounds, the judges add up all the scores and declare Sem the winner. But it’s all friendly. Later, Loret de Mola congratulates her on Facebook.
“I got beat on my birthday by one of my favorite poets—in Sacramento or otherwise—and I couldn’t be happier!” He wrote.
And for Sem, it had never been about winning.
“Slam has been a self-actualization process, finding my voice,” she said. “It’s just been about speaking my truth and hoping that my truth resonates with somebody else, and they can say, ‘Oh shit, I feel that too.'”
Most of the poets onstage weren’t competitors per se. They’re actually part of the Sac Unified Slam Team. (Though, anyone can sign up for The Sac Unified Poetry Slam, and several non-team members did that night.) The team has been working hard to build up something special, and on August 13-18 this year, it’ll pay off when they compete in the National Poetry Slam in Chicago. The grand prize is $2,000. The last time a Sacramento team went was in 2015, and before that, a decade earlier.
“Everybody was looking for a breath of fresh air and saying, ‘Hey, Sacramento has a different breed of poets,'” said Marques Davison (aka Sho Nuff), on the reaction to Sac’s team during the 2015 competition. “We have actors, improv actors, writers. We have different ethnicities that are different than your Bay Area-type folks. So, we thought it would be great to really showcase that.”
The team includes Loret de Mola, Sem, Marques and Khaya Osborne (aka Khalyspo). Torres is the team’s coach, and alternates include Smith, Jenny Davison, Michael Stephenson, Stacy Gee and Marvin Xia.
Their roots go back to a Sac City College class taught by Dr. Angela Alforque. When Alforque left some years ago, students Jenny and Marques asked if they could utilize her methods to make it a group. They started holding workshops with other creatives, and the two ran an open-mic for a few years (not at Luna’s).
Torres had been involved with Sacramento slam poetry for many years as well, including in Alforque’s class. Eventually, Jenny, Marques, Torres and Loret de Mola joined forces.
With Jenny as coach, the original team competed in the 2015 National Poetry Slam in Oakland, where they missed qualifying for the final round by a fraction of a point. In the past few years, they’ve been recalibrating. And now having re-emerged with some new poets in the mix, they’re excited to compete again.
The art of slam poetry has grown in national popularity in the last decade—particularly in the past few years—in part from viral slam videos on YouTube. With its rise, it’s gone from a virtually lawless artform to developing rules and to some degree, tropes. One of those, Osborne said, is for people to focus on their trauma as creative fodder, something Torres, as a coach, doesn’t explicitly encourage teammates to do unless it’s what they are inclined to do to authentically express themselves.
“You are expected to get up there and tell your deepest, darkest secrets and make people cry, and make sure everybody in the room is left stunned by your horrible life,” Osborne said of the mainstream slam poetry culture. “There’s not enough space for people to be their true, authentic selves, even in the light.”
Obsorne pointed to Smith’s awkwardly-asking-a-girl-out piece. ("The audience eats it up every time. It’s hilarious.")
“Sometimes it’s going to be gritty, sometimes it’s going to be sad,” Loret de Mola said. “Sometimes it’s going to be about office life and someone stealing your sandwich from the fridge. Amazing poem. I will defend that poem every day of the week.” He was referring to another Smith poem, called “The Office.”
Every team member is rooted in other disciplines, including acting, improv comedy, burlesque and music, which helped give each their unique voice, and not a specific “Sacramento style.”
Slam poetry has also grown in Sac, developing alongside other spoken art-forms, open-mics like Mahogany Urban Poetry Series, guerrilla performance spaces like ZFG Promotion’s The Intersection, a-capella hip-hop rooms including Sol Collective and a vibrant comedy scene with plenty of spaces for new talent to try everything.
“When I was growing up here, there was nothing like this,” Gee said. “There wasn’t open-mics that I knew about.”
As slam poetry and the Luna’s monthly event grows, the team hopes to make this an annual thing. At the same time, they see what they do as something more than slam poetry. It’s providing a launchpad for other artforms.
“This is the ground level where you can hone your craft,” said Torres, “It’s a school for artists to branch out and start their own thing one day. They can activate their own spaces [from] which all the foundation of is love, respect for the craft, expression, identifying who you are in this world and how you function within this world among other human beings.”