Longform

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

Page 4 of 6

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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."

On stage, at the mike or working without one, Smith's delivery is bold and calculated. "Suzi Q. Smith is like ice water — really, really cold ice water," says Isis Speaks, another local poet. She pauses, then confirms the metaphor. "There's so much in her poetry that can be painful, but in this really deliberate, poignant way. It's brilliant."

Brilliant enough that last year, she was a finalist in both the Individual World Poetry Slam and the Women of the World Poetry Slam, and she was a semi-finalist at the National Poetry Slam. She is a national champion in haiku performance. She has two books and two CDs of poetry to her name, and another one of each in the works. And she is now rated the No. 3 female slam poet in the country, although she doesn't think the national title she won last year had anything to do with her ability to write. "I don't believe that winning or losing makes you a better poet," Smith says. "You can win every slam you're in for weeks and feel so high and then get your ass handed to you by a newbie."

"Suzi Q. Smith is honestly the most reliable person in the Denver poetry community," says Ken Arkind, her fellow coach for Minor Disturbance, Denver's youth poetry slam team, whose members range in age from thirteen to nineteen (see page 41). "She's 100 percent all the time."

When she isn't competing or coaching, she's performing locally and teaching at the middle-school, high-school and university levels. She spends about a third of her time traveling — less than she used to, given her health. Since 2008 she's been represented by Boston Event Works; she's one of the few poets with an agent, who takes 15 percent of any appearances she books for Smith. But in order to make a profit from her travels, she does not accept contracts for less than $1,500.

Because of their budgets, college lectures are the most lucrative gigs. Performing slam shows is not a great way to earn a living. Each night, she says, the best average haul is about $200, and that's if you sell all your merch.

Smith has also used the city's music scene to push her poetry and persona. Lady Wu-Tang, which first performed in January2011, has become one of Smith's most frequent outlets for poetry, though the majority is not her own. The band's internal joke about Smith is a serious one. When the members talk about her, they say that "Suzi Q. Smith is a fucking woman."

When Lady Wu-Tang was originally constructed, Smith doubted her assignment to the role of Method Man, the group's reluctant heartthrob and most enigmatic presence. But that all changed when she actually embraced the additional persona. "I remember right before our first show I saw Black Swan and I thought, 'That is my life right now. I'm two people at once,'" she says. "[Method Man] helps me tap into this raw, aggressive side of myself that I feel like is stamped out in most women."

Over the last few months, the cover band has earned considerable attention, most notably from Wu-Tang itself. Smith and the seven other female MCs who front Lady Wu-Tang closed down Raekwon's solo set at Casselman's the day before their own anniversary show at City Hall on January 29. Strapped into a corset and a fishnet top, growling her rhymes to the crowd at the sold-out concert, Smith was all woman — and not quite a lady.

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple