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He nodded and began to spit out the rhyme; he had no need to refer to that sheet of paper. When he was finished, Smith clapped before offering advice on his pronunciation, rhythm and flow. When she asked Manny for his favorite rapper, he said it was Eminem.

In their first class, Smith had asked the students to write down a line of their favorite song, then pass the paper to the person next to them. From there, they continued adding the lines, with the goal of constructing their own poetry from the results. One student chose Milli Vanilli's "Girl You Know It's True," a selection Smith earnestly hoped was a joke.

"Poetry is like sheet music," she argued, telling the class that it needs to be performed to come alive. "Have you ever seen a piece of sheet music and thought, 'Man, that song is my jam?'"

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.

In her work with students, Smith tries to convince them that slam poetry is the last place where they can tell the truth about absolutely anything. She's made it her mission never to pretend to know something she doesn't, which is one of the reasons that children are drawn to her. "I love turning haters into believers," she admits. "I come from this strange area of life where I know I'm on top and I know I'm the underdog at the exact same time. I just try to get other people to admit they're in the same place."

At a workshop in Laramie last year, Smith asked students to write about the one thing they wish they could undo. She still remembers the most chilling answer — and her response to hearing it. "One kid wrote, 'the gun, the bat, the pipe, Ashley,'" she recalls. "I was astounded that I had been part of his creating that."

But she's also been astounded by more discouraging discoveries. At another college workshop, one of Smith's friends introduced her with an extensive speech, after which a kid raised his hand and asked, "If you've done all that, why aren't you famous?"

In response, she laughed and asked him to name one famous living poet. When his silence grew, she continued, "Exactly."

He couldn't even get Maya Angelou.

*****

When I am quiet,

When the eerie silence fills the room

When the air is a wool coat, wet and heavy

When your body is an electrical fire

When your body is geometry dismembered

When everything about me is piercing and present

When everything I feel is too big to fit into my mouth,

When I am quiet

Something big is about to happen.

Smith passes through the lounge in the University of Wyoming student union, walks past a recruiting booth for the belly-dancing club, takes the stairs to a ballroom and looks over the two dozen undergraduates scattered across seven rows of mostly empty chairs for this session, part of the school's Martin Luther King Jr. Days of Dialogue series.

Then she teaches them to write poetry.

In order to encourage the students to write freely, Smith has allotted them one minute each for a series of ominous tasks: "Words that you most wish you could swallow back into your throat," "something you once believed to be true but don't anymore," "words that you should have said." The poems grow from this.

To show them how their poetry can move from paper to performance, she begins reciting one of her own pieces, devoted to the manipulation of African-American hair. When she performs, Suzi Q. Smith is a force to be reckoned with: As her voice rises, her body seems to grow until, towering over her audience and gently shouting at it, she gets her point across. She's a tough act to follow.

But her performances also sap her energy. So she stays quiet when the students sign up to perform what they've written in front of a larger crowd in the lounge; the sign-up sheet is full. This is her favorite part of the job: introducing poetry to those who might otherwise never learn it or care about it. And after the students read their poems, when she attempts to convince the gathering to start a campus poetry club, she earns a few nods.

Afterward, on the slow and sleepy drive back to Denver, the three poets discuss the future of slam. The genre is frequently dismissed in academic circles as a lesser art form, and pop culture often mistakes spoken-word poetry for its competitive counterpart. Worse yet, all three in the car have been confused for rappers. The art is still evolving, Smith says, then observes, "All of that is bullshit, anyway. It's always been performed out loud, from as far back as Homer. This is the way poetry is supposed to be, but Theo, you're a national poetry-slam finalist, and you can still go outside. So can I."

"Academia has co-opted it, though," Wilson interjects, "and made it seem like there was a difference."

No, Smith responds: "Academia realizes that we can teach poetry in ways they have never been able to. Everyone can be a part of it and make their point, but for slam to evolve and become something more, we, as the experts, have to close the gap between the page and the stage."

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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?

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.

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

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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