Slam poetry is an art that exists in spaces that are, by design, temporary. A café transforms into an open-mic night when the clock strikes eight. From month to month, even week to week, finding a physical place for a slam event can be challenging. Restaurant management changes. A beloved coffeehouse burns down. And now, a global pandemic removes the possibility of being physically together at all.
Slam, an oral poetry form, originated in the 1980s as a way to take poetry out of elite academic spaces and into the hands of the people. It’s performative, and its subject matter — police violence, gentrification, queer identity, racism, etc. — often resists dominant culture. It’s competitive and energetic by nature, with judges chosen from the audience.
Atlanta’s slam community lives in two interconnected organizations: Art Amok and Java Speaks. Java Speaks, formerly known as Java Monkey, is named after the Decatur coffeehouse it called home for 17 or so years before it burned down in 2018. Art Amok, formed in the early 2000s as a response to Java Monkey’s mostly male voices, centers on feminine, trans and other marginalized voices. Each year each group sends a small team to a national performance competition — Art Amok made history by sending an “all-dyke” team its first year.
Art Amok just held its most recent open mic. Java Speaks’ open mics happen at 8 p.m. each Sunday via Zoom.
Each group has lived in various performance spaces pre-pandemic. Art Amok, cofounded by Theresa Davis (known as “the godmother of Atlanta slam poetry”) and Karen Garrabrant, began at 7 Stages, where Davis is a teaching artist. It moved to a café that’s now closed and then to its most recent location, the Red Light Café near Piedmont Park. Java Speaks “couch-surfed” for a while and most recently landed at The Pinewood restaurant in Decatur. Then Covid-19 hit and both moved online.
Art Amok and Java Speaks meet over Zoom for regular open-mic nights and themed events where all are welcome. The virtual space is more accessible in some ways: People who live farther away can more easily attend, and newer attendees — like Libby Taylor — can enter an event with the click of a mouse.
Taylor attended only one open mic before the pandemic. She signed up for Art Amok’s May event and performed to a supportive and encouraging group. “One thing that came across in both formats — virtual and real life,” she says, “was creating a safe environment to share the difficult things people are going through.”
There are drawbacks, however. Some attendees have had trouble hearing the poets, Zoom doesn’t have captioning capabilities and some older members can’t use it at all. Plus, it just feels different to perform to a computer screen than to a crowd of people.
“It’s good to see everybody’s faces, but it’s harder to connect,” says Davis. “We can’t really make eye contact. We can’t feel the applause.”
Slam performances, once tightly choreographed, are now reduced to a seated person speaking to a screen. “Online, you can’t feed off the energy of a crowd in the same room,” says Jordyn King, who’s performed with both groups since 2018. “Ultimately, I think it forces poets to emote more with their words, intonation and faces.”
Still, slam poets continue to come together. They even support each other with a virtual tip jar.
“It is really different trying to hold this community-centric event from a bunch of different living rooms,” says Shay Alexi, who hosts Art Amok’s online events. “But at the same time, it was amazing when we held the first virtual open mic and I saw the faces that I see every month. It reminded me that the feeling of connectedness is about the people you’re connected to and not the space that you’re in.”
So for now, Atlanta slam lives online, but the pandemic won’t last forever. Once the pandemic eases, things will undoubtedly look different.
“I feel like one of the largest challenges we might face is re-entry,” says Garrabrant. “What’s that going to look like? Where is that going to be? Are those venues still going to be there?”
Whether Atlanta slam’s future is online, in physical spaces or a combination, the inclusive, energetic spirit of the community persists.
“We are lucky to have a community of loyal participants,” says Alexi. “You feel something when you see them on the computer screen. We have the type of folks that can curate that feeling regardless of the circumstances.”
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