It was at the Urban League, when Smith was eighteen, that she met the man who would become her husband, then her ex-husband. They married a few days after her twentieth birthday and divorced three years later, after Smith gave birth to a daughter, Kai. "We had completely different ideas of what marriage was," Smith says.

In "Lazarus," perhaps Smith's most well-known poem and still a mainstay in her performance roster, Smith wrote about Kai's father. The poem makes her sister Rebecca cry every time Smith reaches its crescendo, but she doubts that her ex has ever heard it. "Me without you is flawed," the poem says. "I need you. I require you. I'll be damned if I let them acquire you.... You're not the only one going through this. I'm standing knee-deep in the same mess, and we both know I'm not some damsel in distress. I carry the same weapons as you.... You and me got matching scars."

The poem ends with a call to action: "So get up, I'm not done with you yet, Lazarus."

Although the divorce was a friendly one (her ex still attends birthday parties and Thanksgiving dinners), Smith maintains full custody of Kai, now an inquisitive twelve-year-old who is her mother's single greatest inspiration.

With Kai, Smith has adopted an open, experimental relationship. "We have a different system," she says. Smith doesn't believe in bad words, but she does believe that language can be inappropriate, that opinions and ideas can be unhealthy. One day when Kai was in her Ke$ha phase, she was listening to the pop tart's music in the car. "So we pulled the car over to talk about her," Smith recalls. "I said, 'I know you love her, but don't you think she needs rehab? We need to start listening to what she's really saying and say a little prayer for her right now.'"

*****

When I am quiet I am remembering what I have hidden at the tops of closets

And deciding how best to pack them.

When I am quiet I am trying not to cry.

When I am quiet I am going to leave.

When Kai was still a toddler, Smith began performing at open-mike nights, her voice an important part of the spoken-word scene. Smith's physical presence is just as impressive. Her copper-brown hair, which she wears in a loose Afro, bobs when she speaks, and a cunning smile is softened by the noticeable gap between her front teeth. "I'm black, but you can't tell," she jokes. "No one accepts me, not even the Puerto Ricans or the Dominicans. The only people who accept me as their own are the Cubans. Everyone else is like, 'Who do you belong to?'"

She belonged to poetry — but she was a relative latecomer to an important derivative of spoken word: slam poetry.

By the late '80s, the new genre was slamming in Chicago and moving into the big cities of the East, taking hold of New York and Boston before jumping over to the Bay Area and then spreading away from the coasts to cities like Denver. The Mercury Cafe was the city's first center for slam, and sent Denver's first team to the National Poetry Slam in 2000. But as the slam community grew here, the Mercury's five spots were no longer enough to accommodate even half the people who were competitive at a regional level, so poets called for an addition to the city's roster.

That's when Smith stepped up to co-found Slam Nuba in November 2006, despite her worries that the creation of this second group might create a rift — or, at the very least, a rivalry — in the Denver scene. "In other cities, when second or third slams start, it's usually because people hate each other," she says. But the rivalry has always been friendly. Last year, a time penalty in the final bout disqualified Smith from joining Slam Nuba, so she spent the summer competing with the Mercury Cafe team instead. "It sucks when we have to compete against each other, but at least when we're in a national venue, we have friends in the room," she says. In regions like the Northeast, with teams in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, it's easy for poets to get together; Denver's closest competitors are in Albuquerque and Salt Lake.

And Slam Nuba was a strong competitor from the start. It was one of the first groups to adopt a slogan, taken from the Spike Lee film Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Today at competitions, when Slam Nuba is introduced, its members respond with an aggressive shout of "We cut heads!" At nationals a few years ago, another team reworked that as "We pot heads!"; an R-rated poster mocking the Slam Nuba slogan is currently circling the Internet.

In 2009, Slam Nuba's members were so busy practicing for nationals that they neglected to take a team photo the entire season. "Once you get on the team, you are signing your life away for four months," Smith says. Each year, she rotates her time between participating on the team and coaching it as the slam master at its host venue, the Crossroads Theater.

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10 comments
52eighty
52eighty

a better article can be written to shine on Suzi without weaving a mythology that disses Slam Nuba...

I mean, c'mon - "national haiku champion"? Really? Is there also a national limerick champ? As good as Suzi is (and she is good), she hasn't been able to crack the Slam Nuba lineup in the past few years, so the article's portrayal of her affiliation with Slam Nuba is pretty exaggerated - albeit a good coat-tail strategy on her part...

You can do better, Westword.

Surely?

MissJessica
MissJessica

Way to go Suzi Q, love you little sis!

Laura Bond
Laura Bond

Thanks for the story, Westword. Suzi Q is a force of nature. This story will be yet another source of inspiration to the young people whose hearts and minds she reaches through her work. Also great to see The Minor Disturbance Youth Poetry team as recipients of a MasterMind. Lots of poetry, and inspired poetic people, in this issue!

Jellybean Jones
Jellybean Jones

That's my girl! If you haven't heard her yet, you're missing something powerful. <3

Mizz303
Mizz303

Suzi is awesome. I was excited to read the article.

Msbec303
Msbec303

She's simply amazing and dynamic...I'm so proud of her.

SayWhat
SayWhat

Suzi is a singular and amazing talent - but the team that won the championship this year did not include her - I am sure that the actual championship members are a bit insulted by the headline

hidingbehindscreennames
hidingbehindscreennames

@52eighty clearly you need to do some fact checking, and don't know much about Suzi. But she's not hard to find if you want to clear it up.

calhounp
calhounp

The headline refers to the national championship that will be in Denver next month. Definitely no insult intended for the Slam Nuba team, which last year won a Westword MasterMind award.

Kelsey W.
Kelsey W.

The headline refers to the Women of the World Poetry Slam coming here in March. (You're right, she was on the Merc team.)

 
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