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."
She sighs. "If you haven't noticed, slam is a soap opera."
And that soap opera is about to put Denver center stage. To become the site of a national competition, a city must enter a bid as though the festival were the Olympics. In late 2009, Smith and a handful of organizers put their heads together and decided to go for a smaller, more manageable festival, the Women of the World Poetry Slam, but their bid was rejected. The next year, though, they won the right to hold the Women of the World contest in Denver in March 2012.
For the better part of a year, Smith and her colleagues have been hunting down financial supporters and places to put the performers. Although only twelve women compete in a single bout, the festival will hold three rounds simultaneously — at Eden, the Mercury and Leela's. On March 10, the final round at the Denver Art Museum will crown the country's female slam champion.
"It's a good thing I've got a lot of hair," Smith says, "because some of it definitely got pulled out."
The festival is a huge project and an important one, given its recognition of female poets, but it's just a first step. For Denver, it's a chance to prove that the city is ready to host the nationals. Soon.
Some in the local scene worry that Denver might not be ready to stage such a large event, that it doesn't have enough full-time poets — or a large enough audience. But Smith dismisses those concerns.
"I don't think poets have weaknesses," she says. "It's just something you haven't done yet."