Can words change the world? Austin "Mountain" Alexander, and the rest of the Maui's burgeoning slam-poetry scene, aim to find out
September 16, 2010 | 08:43 AM"The revolution will not be no re-run, brothers, the revolution will be live."
- Gil Scott-Heron, spoken word poet
A hidden stairwell sneaks up from behind the back area of Milagros Restaurant in Paia, into a tattoo shop upstairs. It's a large parlor complete with art gallery and loads of space to roam. During the day, when the place is open for regular business, I imagine it feels spacious and airy, beautiful even. On this particular Thursday evening in late August, however, the space is packed with people of all ages, colors and walks of life—literally standing elbow to elbow—rubbing together their assorted Afros, dreadlocks, spikes, tattoos, gray hairs and hippie attire.
For a Maui event, this is about as diverse as it gets. And the diversity goes hand-in-hand with the type of event it is—a "poetry slam," where brave performance poets sign up to showcase their flair for the written and spoken word, while randomly selected members of the audience serve as judges. Due in part to this democratic creative forum, every slam I've ever attended has been incredibly colorful.
At about 10:30pm, an exceptionally tall, tattooed, pierced, and suspender-clad man named Mountain rises to the podium and sheepishly faces the audience. A shock of jet-black hair dances above his head. His body language displays a nervousness, an excitement that is palpable. With a deep breath, he begins to spit out one hypnotic, self-indulgent fiery phrase after another, breathing potent metaphors into verbal acrobatics, like a floor gymnast flipping to his grand finale—only with a lot more hip-hop swagger and much, much baggier pants.
It's not the first time I've seen Mountain perform at Maui Slam, the only monthly slam poetry venue on Maui. Always a great place for scoping out Maui's lyrical talent, I've been naturally drawn to this event for the sheer reason that I get to experience so much intelligence in one room. The events, now under the wing of creative and classy librarian Ellen Peterson of Kit Kat Club fame, have grown to include other types of performing arts, everything from live painting to musical theatre to dance. With the exception of this event at Paia Tattoo, nowadays Maui Slam is held on the last Thursday of every month at Casanova in Makawao.
Maui Slam is a place where all voices are accepted and dozens of Maui's bravest wordsmiths take the stage to share their gifts and their raw, unadulterated thoughts. It's community storytelling with a beatnik flair. In every case, there is a temporal, "disappearing ink" quality to the performances. Unlike written poetry that can be repeated, recited and studied in lit class, performance poetry comes to life only in the moments the poet is on stage. The delivery, the rhythm and the drama are as important as the words. The more captivated the audience, the better.
Since Maui Slam's early days, Mountain has stood out. He takes spoken word and bends it into his own distinctive style, with a polished, professional delivery. His talents have earned him a place at the World Poetry Slam in December on the Mainland. Of course, he's not the only one bringing the verbal goods; other Maui Slam standouts include Pat Masumoto of Wailuku's Gallerie Ha, who bucks the system with her bold, brazen style, J. Marc Manse, an actor and writer, Ra Sol and Jahsun Stoltz, members of the local Hip-hop group Unsung Mighty Few and Lilah "Lava" Clay, a thoughtful, hypnotic female poet and published author.
Later, Peterson explains to me that performance poetry and the rich oral traditions of our local culture make Maui a perfect home for this type of art. "Here, the literary arts are founded in spoken word traditions, so in many ways, performance poetry on Maui could be considered primal and ancient, while at the same time fresh and new," she says.
While slam poetry traces its origins to the early days of hip-hop—which is rife with people rising like lyrical phoenixes from violent, unjust, often tumultuous backgrounds—it isn't necessarily all serious. In fact, at the tattoo shop event, I almost peed my pants when Lava referred to her poem's "gangsta" character's ego as "a baggy, saggy hammock you can't get out of." In fact, she had the entire place roaring so loudly, she had to pause until everyone caught their breath so she could continue.
Born Austin Alexander in 1982 near Philadelphia, Mountain's back story is just as dynamic as the on and off-stage presence I've come to know over the years.
"My father was an adventurer, a preacher-turned-gangster, a lot of things, and my mother was a published songwriter and model. He once climbed Mt. Ararat looking for Noah's Ark, and she was a Miss America runner up," Mountain shares over lunch at Market Fresh Bistro in Makawao. Following in his parents eclectic footsteps, he has become a modern-day Renaissance Man on a mission.
Austin first left home for good at 18, penniless, with only a back pack slung over his shoulders. He hitch-hiked and traveled across the country, living on the streets, in the woods, in caves, jungles, beaches, you name it. In 2005, he left the country for Italy, where he mastered the fine art of glass blowing, and Greece, where he reunited with blood relatives. Over the years he began performing as a hip-hop MC (he's now in an outfit called SubVerses), and has at times written his lyrics in both Greek and Italian, which he picked up during his travels. His glass artwork is currently on display at Sergent's gallery in Lahaina. In addition, he has a knack for gourmet cooking (he works as a chef at Milagros to pay the bills) and can play 10 instruments.
"My mom started teaching me piano at the age of three, so I could read music before I could read words," he remembers. "It's no wonder my words come to me in a flow like music. I've been writing creatively ever since I learned to write."
Despite his affinity for putting pen to paper, he hadn't set foot on a slam poetry stage until late 2007.
"I've always been performing on a stage, you know. But I stayed away from doing slams for a long time, because of the fact that it's judged art, and I think that's bullshit," he says. "For somebody to say they liked my piece more than somebody else's is oftentimes outrageous. Because of that, I never actually started representing words on a stage until about three years ago in Seattle. "
Mountain's first slam performance was of a poem called "Breathe." He was so nervous, he says he was "kind of hyperventilating." The words, a call to action to an apathetic public, remain fresh in his mind:
We Earth natives are restless
Our dramas, trials and cries leave me restless, breathless
More than half of civilization is depth-less
Better catch up before the death kiss
But hopefully, already, you guessed this
And get this: God gave you life, so quit acting like you are gift-less
As he read the piece, he says he began to see and feel the affect his words were having on the audience. "It felt good. I remember after I did it, that was the first time I realized I could move people with my words. I remember there was this one guy in particular who started crying while I was doing it, and that was pretty powerful to me, to see that could actually happen. That somebody just telling you something creatively can just draw the emotions like that." Clearly transported back to that moment, Mountain begins to tear up himself.
He says that of all of the artistic mediums he works in, he "gets the most" and "feels the best" about poems. His lyrical work tackles ambitious topics like war and love, over-consumption and faith, family and the afterlife, deftly plucking emotional strings we all have.
"There are times when literally I'll write a piece and be done, and that's just straight channeling. Its an absolute flow, and that's amazing, it's the most amazing feeling I've ever possibly gotten a hold of. I see how God is ultimately using me to affect the feelings of others."
So where did this slam poetry come from, and how did it get to a tattoo shop in Paia?
The Origins of Slam
Writing for the voice instead of for the page, slam poets have - for the better part of the last 30 years - been composing and performing on thousands of stages around the world.
At a slam, a poem's worth is not determined by literary critics, but by the people it was written for. Because of this, slam poetry events represent a resurrection of community storytelling, a chance to bring issues and injustices to light that often aren't covered in the mainstream media (hence the famous Gil Scott-Heron phrase "the revolution will not be televised"). The audience and performers enlighten and inform one another.
Today's slam poets owe a lot to hip-hop culture; the infectious beats and rhymes that climbed the charts in the '80s gave birth to a new art form. Marc Smith is credited with originating slam in Chicago in 1984, though it really took hold in the cultural mecca that is New York City's Lower East Side at a place called the Nuyorican Poets Cafe—a venue beat poet Allen Ginsburg called "the most diverse place on the planet."
But the roots of performance poetry go deeper than that. Ginsburg himself said he saw the parallels between the Beat Poets of the 1950s and the '80s and '90s spoken word movement, and appreciated spoken word's emphasis on returning poetry to the masses. "This movement is a great thing: the human voice returns, words return, nimble speech returns, nimble wit and rhyming return," Ginsberg once said. "The movement is like a compost for poetry. It serves to cultivate an interest in the art by cultivating a great audience—an audience of amateur practitioners."
This connection to both hip-hop and the finger-snapping mid-century counter-culture may be why slam poetry has resonated so well with Maui's diverse community of intellectuals, and why we see people of all ages frequenting the Maui Slam events.
Maui Slam began in 2006, the brainchild of a Maui couple named Dave and Chela Coennen who owned a short-lived bookstore in Wailuku. Soon after the monthly slams—officially sanctioned by the national organization Poetry Slam Inc.—began, Mountain found his way to their stage. Dave Coennen (aka Slam Master D) says, "From the beginning [Mountain] was on the cutting edge of spoken word on Maui. The judges weren't ready, but he was."
Peterson explains his talents further. "Mountain performs what's commonly referred to as hip-hop poetry, where alliteration and rhyming play a particularly distinctive role. Most poets who consider themselves true slam poets or MCs—I would say—write a type of hip-hop poetry. There are a few other 'core' Maui Slam poets who write this type of poetry, however, unlike more urban areas, hip-hop poetry is a rarity here—this makes Mountain a unique and special artist."
I remember being at a particular slam where Mountain—in his usual jittery fashion—took the stage and prefaced a new poem with, "I'm a little nervous right now! And I like being on a stage, but this is kind of special to me, so..."
With a deep breth, he then released a lush, intimate account of his relationship with his "girl" in a piece titled "Stringless Instrument":
You're a figment of a dream that woke me up for me to see
That there's more to love in life than what I previously perceived
Like there's more that binds the book than just the stitching and the sleeve
See I love to love my Lover without the strings of selfish greed
So I praise God and thank her mother just for making this child breathe...
Days later, I saw that an audience member had posted a video of the performance on Facebook and noticed the lingering "swoon effect" it still had—just like the potent feeling in the room that night when he recited it live. Everyone believed in that moment that his "girl" was the luckiest gal alive.
Mountain says that after that performance, some of his more hardened, rough-around-the-edges male friends (he's not naming names) came up to him confessing things like: "I wanted to tell you that I really appreciated what you said about your girl, it just really made me appreciate mine that much more," and, "Yo, I love my girl too, man!"
"I'm definitely a heart on my sleeve kind of guy, and I take things in the world pretty seriously," says Mountain. "Writing these pieces is therapy to me, that's how I work stuff out in my brain. Then I realize I can do that in a format that doesn't only help me, but I can help others out too, you know, since I feel like everybody experiences the same stuff in life. So, it's my therapy and I choose to share it. So when did I realize I had a gift for writing? [Laughs] The first time I decided to share it. Ever since, I've done it with a fierce passion."
This December, Austin and his "fierce passion" will be traveling to Charlotte, North Carolina, to represent Maui at the Individual World Poetry Slam 2010. He was selected because of his regular successes at Maui Slam, and it's the efforts of Maui Slam that will send him there (Peterson is helping him raise funds; donations can be made at mauislam.com).
According to the Poetry Slam, Inc. Web site: "Poets from all over the world will meet and compete in a multi-day performance poetry contest. Ninety-six of the world's top performance poets representing slam venues from around the globe converge for three days of competition. These poets will compete to declare who is THE number one poet in the world." The event's date has switched around a few times, but is now confirmed for December 8.
When I ask Mountain about the possibility of being named the best slam poet in the world, his response is uncharacteristically humble. "I don't care about the winning part at all, at all. I feel honestly that the fact that I can talk to people, I can have a platform to share where my heart is, that's what's important to me. It's almost like feeling like a preacher. I have a feeling that I have a message, I believe in that message and I want to share that with people. I think it opens them up, it tears down walls, it softens the hearts of those that care about it. I feel really blessed to be able to do that, so I don't give a crap about winning. Every time I do win, it's surprising to me. I just feel blessed to be able to share what I feel."
I could easily counter that Maui is blessed to have him and his gifts come alive on our island stages and how exciting it would be to have the World Poetry Slam champion hail from the Valley Isle. But I'll just let Mountain's words do the talking.
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