The Music Building Auditorium, capacity 600, was nearly full. Six hundred people anywhere in Spokane, for any kind of event, is a big deal. Six hundred way up on T.J. Meenach Drive to hear a slam poet give a reading on Friday night, though, that's a revelation.
The hall was filled with religion professors, street kids, college administrators, thugs, white rastas and Latino bookworms. It looked like there were a few fashionable Mukogawa students in the mix as well. People were prattling on, screwing around. When Williams strode out, though, the crowd went silent. He walked to the edge of the stage, and jumped off into the front row. People erupted again.
For such a diverse crowd, his command was uncanny. He made weed jokes and kids laughed. He referenced Medusa; called Perseus "that asshole," and the feminists cheered. He read poems shouting his views on God, faith and family and the religion professors nodded enthusiastically. The room was his, completely.
When someone asked him about the contest aspect of poetry slams (wherein members of the audience are randomly chosen to be judges), Williams expressed qualms. "I made a promise to myself that I'd never write for a poetry slam, because then I'd be writing for someone other than myself," he said, before mentioning that he'd won the first tournament he ever entered. That means, of course, that his art isn't completely untainted by the allure of audience loyalty.
Indeed the essence of his allure is tied to those slam days, the way he tightropes his artistic integrity with populist showmanship. Individualism is powerful, but so is giving people what they want. Williams' understanding of that breeds the kind of star power that can set a room on fire without pyrotechnics, an overlooked element bands would do well to think about.