Seeing Amoja Sumler—better known to some as “The Mo-Man”—onstage, his arms and hands punctuating each spoken line, his dreadlocks dangling well below his shoulders, it’s hard to believe he ever thought poetry was uncool.
Born and raised in Chicago, Sumler began writing poetry in the fourth grade under protest—“I thought it was totally unmasculine,” he says—but by 1992 when a 17-year-old Sumler and his family arrived in Arkansas after stints in his parents’ home state of Mississippi and later New Orleans, something had changed. He’d realized poetry was not only a way to express his thoughts, but also a metaphorical lens he could use to see the world through the eyes of others. Soon, he found his way to a poetry slam in the backroom of Little Rock’s Vino’s Brewpub.
Slam, as its practitioners call it, is a visceral form of poetry that lives not on paper but onstage. At its most basic, it’s a competition in which members of the audience act as judges. But since the art form’s rise in the late 1980s, it’s been seen by many as a way to democratize poetry—to take it back from the halls of academia to the streets. In slam, winning is not about rhetoric and metaphor. It’s about passion.
And Sumler is a force of passion. As a member of Arkansas’ Art in Education roster, he has been teaching poetry in schools across the state and region for more than a decade. And as slam master of Rocktown Slam, he’s helped see the twice-monthly competition graduate from the backroom at Vino’s to the Arkansas Arts Center and field its first team of poets to represent the region in competitions around the country. And he’s helped bring the 23rd annual Southern Fried Poetry Slam, which claims the distinction of being the world’s second-largest poetry event, to Arkansas for the first time. In addition to the competitive slams where 40 teams and 20 independent poets will face off, the five-day-long event will feature workshops, readings and more, most of which will be free and open to the public.
As Little Rock prepared to play host to poets from across the country and around the world, we sat down with the slam master to talk about life as a poet and just how the heck this “slam” thing works anyhow.
Slam poetry is a fairly new art form. How would you explain it to those unfamiliar with it?
Slam is a sponge. It is accepting of a lot of things and styles, but one of the things that is absolutely unique to slam is the ability to be judged. That is something Marc Kelly Smith was absolutely adamant about. He is the founder of this thing we call slam. He had been to so many academic readings where there were no stakes. With slam, we are taking five random people from the audience that may or may not have any affinity for poetry and allowing them to judge poetry. That creates stakes. If your poem is about something people cannot see themselves in, often you will score poorly. And, to be fair, this has created a little bit of pandering in the slam world. That whole “If you don’t get this, it’s you, not me” attitude. So it’s important for the audience to get it because if not them, then who? I think it is like music in a way. You can’t just live off your sheet music. You have to be out there playing all the time.
I can’t help but think there is something in the American spirit to which slam really speaks—that through competition, the cream will always rise to the top.
Ha! Well, there is a joke in poetry, especially slam poetry, that the best poet almost never wins. If you think about poetry as the art of writing poetry—about rhetoric and skill and all of these literary devices—slam is the sport of knowing exactly what poem to use when. It can be the most brilliant poem ever written—and as a person intimately aware of craft and process, I could be like, “Oh my God, that metaphor is amazing”—but you may have a 45-year-old firefighter who does not know those devices. Think about figure skating. It will never be judged by five random people in the audience who don’t know the difference between a triple axle and a triple salchow. They don’t know what’s hard. They just know what they like. So it’s not often the best writer who wins in slam. Slam is absolutely as much about strategy and knowing what you can and can’t get away with as it is about craft.
What’s involved with running the oldest continually operating poetry slam in central Arkansas?
It’s an exhausting, sort of thankless job. H.K. Stewart was the first slam master when we started at Vino’s in the early ’90s. He had been the slam master for close to a decade, but he wanted to focus more on his own writing and his own career as an artist, so there was an interim slam master, and then it passed to me. It was something that I took a little bit begrudgingly because it is impossible to remove the fact that you spend quite a bit of time doing administrative-type tasks that take you away from what your first love is. But I feel that, as an activist, the thing that is important is always service to others.
When we have our slam, it is very important to me, especially in a place like Arkansas, that we showcase as many different voices as possible. We have 90-year-olds come here [to the Arkansas Arts Center]. We have 15-year-olds come here. It is one of the most inclusive things I have seen happen in Little Rock. It is not a black thing. It is not a white thing. It is not a young thing, and it is not an old thing. It is an “us” thing. You see people from all walks of life sharing feedback, hugging, talking to each other. There are the obvious breakdowns in demographics that are unavoidable because we are in the South—you know, race—but I think less spoken about is the age division in art. What we have here, it breaks across all of those demographic expectations, and I think that, more than any other thing, is something I am very, very proud to see because it becomes “our South.” It becomes all of those stories.
Speaking of the South, does the region influence your work as a poet?
Absolutely. Southern culture is very rich, and it is something that I definitely felt I could get behind and wave that flag. As a person that tours nationally, I have to say that it is one of the things that Southern artists are always a little bit behind the hammer on. [The rest of the country] assumes us to be less sophisticated, a little bit reactionary, anachronistic. But one of the best poetry magazines in the country is Oxford American, and they have that same feeling where they hold the flag and say, “Southern art does not mean less than.” So that is definitely something that has always been a chip on my shoulder.
You know, we are all on this same boat and moving forward against this greater backdrop of “Southern equals less than,” but then we [Southern artists] are all making this collage of what Southern excellence looks like—redefining those ideals and pushing back against tropes.
This is a question I always like asking artists because art is such a tough profession: When did you realize you could make a living through poetry?
Well, I am making a living, but making money is quite a different thing. Of all the arts, I would argue poetry is the most difficult. Shakespeare had to walk away from poetry and was like, “You know, I think I am going to do this play thing.” And 500 years later, we are like, “How? How could he not make money at it?”
I think every artist really just has to go out there on faith and just believe in your message, and if you become so compelling that others are forced to listen, you stand a very strong chance. Anytime you can make a living through words, I think you are succeeding. It is a very tough thing to do, and it is a much-needed thing.
But it was always the understanding that I would need to do a number of things. I tour nationally as a poet and do speaking engagements, arts education, and teach creative writing in schools around the South, specifically throughout Arkansas, not just in Little Rock. I have been on the Arkansas Arts in Education roster since the early 2000s, so this is going on a decade of teaching within the schools. I did it because I felt like it was very important that young writers see contemporary authors … to see this is where the art is now. This is what the art looks like now.
How big a deal is it for Little Rock and Rocktown Slam to host the 2015 Southern Fried Poetry Slam?
This is its 23rd year. It’s the largest festival of poetry in the South, and this is only the third time it has been on this side of the Mississippi River. And the other two times it was in New Orleans, of course.
I cannot in any shape of words express the gratitude I have for the body of slam masters in the South who have trusted Little Rock and Arkansas to host this great tournament—this great festival of poetry that is Southern Fried. It is going to bring together so many dissimilar forms of poetry, not just slam. We have poets coming from all over the South—and a good portion of the nation—to Arkansas for the first time to share their work, and all of the people associated with poetry in Arkansas will be working to show our city in the best light possible.
It really is a coalition. We pitched it to the board of the Southern slam masters, and were immediately embraced by the Arkansas Arts Center, which has been hosting our slam for years. They came on as a full-on partner, and Sibling Rivalry Press came on not long afterward. They are one of the most respected small presses is the South, and are doing amazing work to keep the expectation of what Southern art is really high.
The Southern Fried Poetry Slam takes place June 2-6 at locations around the city. Visit sofried2015.com for more information.