Longform

Slam poet Suzi Q. Smith brought a national championship to Denver

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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.

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."

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?"

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple