The Carrot and the Stick

The reborn Spokane Poetry Slam is going to whip your poet ass into shape

The good thing and the bad thing about Spokane’s slam poetry scene right now, if you ask Issac Grambo, are kind of the same thing.

“The scene in Spokane doesn’t really have a voice,” Grambo says. By “voice,” he means a cohesive, scene-wide aesthetic — the way slammers in Boise tend toward the sarcastic and the satirical and the slammers in Seattle tend toward the lyric and metaphysical.

In Spokane there are as many styles as poets.

“People who are lyrical, people who are sarcastic. People like Allen Duffy, who writes purely absurdist stuff that’s really funny, and then you think, ‘What are you talking about?’ Completely off-the-wall stuff that’s completely original,” says Grambo.

It’s an asset because Spokane’s performance poets here have a brazen, often bizarre diversity. It’s a sign, though, Grambo says, that there’s been no clear structure for critique.

Grambo went to college here, earning a BFA from Eastern Washington University in 2002 before heading to grad school in Boise. He stayed there for the better part of a decade, becoming a central organizer in that city’s slam poetry scene.

When Grambo returned to Spokane in December 2011, he found a thriving performance poetry scene centered on the Broken Mic — the weekly open mic at Neato Burrito — but no poetry slam of any kind.

That’s the reason, he thinks, for the vacuum of critical dialogue. If open mics like Broken Mic function like expressive go-at-your-own-pace, there’s-no-wrong-answer Montessori Schools, poetry slams are like military boarding school. You perform and either get praised or pilloried. And when you get pilloried, you either quit or get better. A scene needs both to thrive.

Good art, Grambo says, benefits from “immediate, qualitative feedback.” Being relentlessly supportive is vital, but it only gets a person so far.

Mark Anderson agrees. At 24, he’s already the grandfather of Spokane’s young performance poetry scene and the man who turned Broken Mic into what it has become. Anderson ran both Broken Mic and the Spokane Poetry Slam until the Slam staggered to its death in June 2011. “When it’s the same person doing two similar things,” Anderson says of his work on the poetry events, “One ends up being much better than the other.” That person brings “the same energy to both of them,” Anderson says, “One ends up being a shitty knockoff of the other.”

When Grambo expressed interest in taking over the slam and bringing it back to life, Anderson says he knew that was the right step, and that it was coming at the right time. “[The scene] was reaching a point where there really needed to be a more critical element,” Anderson says.

Anderson thinks Grambo is the right person for that.

“He appreciates good art and writing, and gets annoyed by bad art and empty posturing,” Anderson says. “He opens up a dialogue about what is good art, and he’ll tell you if he thinks there’s something he can do better.”

Anderson calls Grambo, “a snob in that good way.”

Grambo laughs when he’s told this and cops to it: “I like being able to say, ‘If you don’t like your score, go write a better poem.’” 

Spokane Poetry Slam • Sun, Oct 21 at 8:30 pm • Scout • 1001 W. First St. 

Nunsense @ Schuler Performing Arts Center

Sat., Aug. 13, 7:30 p.m., Sun., Aug. 14, 2 p.m., Thu., Aug. 18, 7:30 p.m., Fri., Aug. 19, 7:30 p.m., Sat., Aug. 20, 7:30 p.m. and Sun., Aug. 21, 2 p.m.
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About The Author

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.