Denver's two teams have helped hone the city's reputation as a place for voluminous, multi-dimensional group pieces that often incorporate song instead of the solo performances preferred by the majority of their competitors. As long as each poet involved in a group piece either wrote part of it or is performing that round, he or she can join the group on stage. And when Slam Nuba travels for competition, its members like to stick together; they usually rent a condo rather than book hotel rooms.

Smith, Lefebre and Wilson have all rotated in and out of Slam Nuba since its founding six years ago, and the team has earned a spot at the national championship's semifinals every year since then. Even in casual conversation, the three poets sound like they are performing. So when Lefebre tells the story of Slam Nuba's rise through Smith, it is a dramatic monologue. For years, he has tried to convince someone to create a reality show following a slam team around during the four months leading up to summer nationals.

"We didn't have anything to compare ourselves to," he says. "We just created this from scratch, but we don't fucking play. We've always been a well-oiled machine because we've never lost that feeling of being the other slam team."

Suzi Q. Smith takes on the role of Method Man with Lady Wu-Tang.
Suzi Q. Smith takes on the role of Method Man with Lady Wu-Tang.
Suzi Q. Smith's twelve-year-old daughter, Kai, is her greatest inspiration.
Suzi Q. Smith's twelve-year-old daughter, Kai, is her greatest inspiration.

But Smith isn't quite the well-oiled machine she once was. In early 2010, while at her job as a sales specialist at Trinidad Benham, she collapsed on her way to the copy machine. Typically, she proceeded to army-crawl to her desk in front of all of her co-workers, but the point was clear even to her: Something had to change.

Earlier that morning, in fact, she'd visited a cardiologist. She'd been pushing herself for years — as a mother, an employee, a poet — and the stress had begun to show. "The hectic pace of that all caught up with me, I guess, because all of a sudden I was on the floor," Smith says. "It was an insane lifestyle, but I didn't want to acknowledge any limitations."

The diagnosis was a brain-stem condition called dysautonomia. Essentially, Smith's automatic nerve system occasionally ceases to function correctly, which results in dizziness, loss of feeling and visual side effects. Her blood flow slows down. To explain it, she subtly curls the fingers on her right hand. "When I have a fit, this is the closest I can get to a fist," she says. For a poet, however, the disorder's most problematic symptom might be that it makes her substitute words. Frequently when she speaks, Smith will use a word completely out of context, confusing her audience. Recently, while attempting to request an envelope, she repeatedly asked her perplexed family members for a "lemon drop."

Smith spent most of 2010 in bed before she, Kai and their two big dogs moved in with her mother and stepfather. Today she works with a naturopathic doctor and takes forty vitamin supplements a day. If she experiences an attack while driving, she has to pull over and call a friend to pick her up. It is because of her condition that she doesn't drive alone on trips; instead, she brings other poets along. And she can no longer take Kai to school every day — a realization that required her to swallow a huge amount of pride.

"She knows what she wants out of life because she has been there and seen what she does not want," says her sister Rebecca. "After that, it's a lot easier to create a life out of where you want to go."

And in the end, the diagnosis helped Smith to make a decision she'd postponed for years: to finally drop the 9-to-5 and become a full-time poet. Now when she talks about her travels with those who don't know much about the poetry scene, they sometimes ask, "Oh, you got a job?"

Her response is candid: "Fuck you, no. Do you know how hard I work to not have a job?"

*****

When I am quiet I am holding my tongue

Curling my fist 'round it

Tracing my fingers along the tip

Wanting to throw it

Wanting to hide it

Wanting to swallow it.

A slam poet is allotted three minutes for a performance, but Smith doesn't need them to make her point. She has been known to step on stage, recite a haiku and step off — to overwhelming applause. The most common category in slam is the identity poem, though, and most of Smith's poetry can be easily traced back to her own sense of self. She is a single mother who also happens to be a full-time poet, and that's a tough combination in America — albeit a rich place to write from. And when she writes, it's with a sense of urgency.

"You have only these three tiny minutes to say all of yourself to whoever is listening," Smith explains, "so you have to treat it like your last three minutes on Earth. You should be saying something that's a little bit bigger than you."

While she doesn't have much to prove to the local scene, she still has things to prove to herself. "People sometimes ask me for my autograph after shows, and I'm like, 'Why do you want this?'" she says. "I mean, I'd only want your signature if it were on a check. It's really a personal challenge to see what I'm capable of. My competition is me."

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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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