It was hour fifty of the Warp, the infamous 72-hour marathon rave and underground-theater festival that takes place every November in a medieval dungeon near the Tower of London. Headlining performance artist Ian Winn was about to take the stage, when a lad who had pupils the size of saucers and was wearing a purple-sequined top asked him the time.
"Two," Winn replied.
The mad hatter started to walk off but then spun around, looking confused. "A.M. or P.M.?"
Moments later, Winn stood before a gigantic multimedia screen bearing flickering flames and the message "Deep Meditation Therapy," or DMT, a reference to the potent psychedelic compound derived from vines found only in South American rainforests. Winn, a University of California marine-biology honors graduate turned expatriate spoken-word sensation, took up the microphone and launched into his signature opener: the prologue to his 1999 debut novel, Technopagan Octopus Messiah, still a cult hit on the India/Nepal/Southeast Asia backpackers' circuit.
When Winn recently relocated to Denver to finish his second book, he left behind a huge following in the United Kingdom. A regular at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, he also took top honors at several major poetry slams in England, opened for superstar rave DJs such as Paul Oakenfold at London nightspots and had a weekly radio show on London's most popular alternative-rock station, X-FM. In the States he was a featured guest artist at last year's National Poetry Slam semi-finals in Oakland, as well as at the Burning Man Festival in northern Nevada.
Winn's live shows are an alloy of satirical, politically tinged stand-up comedy, à la Dennis Miller, interspersed with memorized, hyperkinetic readings of the poems in his novel, which describe, among other topics, his first DMT trip and his yearlong quest to find a crystal among the pyramids in Egypt.
"There's a difference between a stage and a platform," says Winn. "I'm not a polemicist. I'm passionate about storytelling, and lot of what I do happens to rhyme, but I don't wear black turtlenecks and moan about emptiness, and I don't make jokes about airline peanuts. Spoken word is the rat on the slave ship of comedy, and it probably best describes what I do, but I'd rather stick with 'svengali.'"