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Poetic Justice

At the Westport Poetry Slam, audience members are masters of their own fate.

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"I have to choose my words carefully here," William Peck says, chuckling. The Kansas City-based performance poet and former editor of the now-defunct Friction Magazine is attempting to find a word that sums up the problem with most poetry readings. After a pause, during which several options are tasted and rejected, he makes his selection and pronounces it with zeal: "Masturbatory."

No one who has endured an evening of open-mic poetry could call Peck a liar. Poetry readings trot out a predictable cast of characters: the mopey woman lamenting rejection by men for whom she was too good anyway; the ponytailed Rogaine candidate trying to rewrite Howl; the list goes on. They may seem charming the first time, but they're grating by the fifteenth incarnation. That's why we can appreciate Peck's proclamation.

Peck discovered the antidote for poets whose forays into spoken word seemed self-serving when he visited Chicago's Green Mill Tavern a couple of years ago and witnessed the then-new phenomenon called a poetry slam. On his return, Peck began organizing slams in the Kansas City area. The format is simple: Poets present their work in short (typically three-minute) rounds and are judged by the audience. Fewer performers advance each round, and the final bout is a spoken-word duel.

What excites Peck about the format isn't the competition. "No one does a slam to win," he says. The exciting part is the judging. Or rather, that the audience does the judging. That shift of authority from the performer to the audience forces the poet to "get out of his [or her] head" and "remember this is supposed to be entertaining."

It is, in fact, the highly engaged crowd that makes Peck's poetry slams worthwhile, for less-experienced poets in particular. At September's slam -- the first to be held at the densely populated Stanford and Sons (after a long run at the 13th Street Bar and Grill downtown and then at the Midtown School of Dance) -- one man got up on stage with a case of first-time jitters so bad he was shaking. "You're all right," someone shouted from the house. "You're doing great." Later, during the slam, the crowd seemed to favor poetry that opposed organized religion and praised marijuana, with each mention of pot earning hoots and hollers.

Peck's enthusiasm for the poetry slam is contagious. Holding the microphone stand in a two-fisted grip, he interacts playfully with the audience, introducing one seasoned participant as the Poet Who Can Most Often Be Found On My Couch. Peck's role is one part stand-up comic, one part spoken-word performer and one part Wolfman Jack.

Perhaps more important, Peck vigilantly holds poets to the three-minute limit -- and anyone is endurable for three minutes.

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