Brian De Los Santos
Portland-based slam poet Brian Ellis is a fan of performing to unfamiliar faces.
He’s never been to San Luis Obispo, so he knows that when he takes the stage this week for The Anthem, the annual slam poetry competition at Cal Poly, he’ll know no one in the stands. Quite frankly, they might not know him either.
It’s OK, he says, because as he grabs the mic on Wednesday in Chumash Auditorium, he’ll be doing just what he does best: engaging the unfamiliar, familiarly.
“I’ve always been particularly invested in people that have never seen my work,” Ellis said. “The best way to get your work out there is to perform.”
That sentiment echoes the theme of The Anthem poetry slam this year. While the event will bring back big names such as San Diego-bred Rudy Francisco, who won the event last year, or Bay Area-based slam poet Prentice Powell, the committee is aiming to bring a diverse crop of poets to cover a broad spectrum of topics for three hours of non-stop poetry to Cal Poly.
Or, put simply, an unfamiliar perspective.
“We try to get poets from all different types of backgrounds,” committee member and English senior Cate Harkins said. “Sometimes in this area you don’t see that as much, so we try to get different poets who promote diversity at Cal Poly.”
But this isn’t the first time Ellis, or most of his fellow performers, will deliver poems to academia. Ellis has performed at end-of-the year poetry slams at colleges on both the west and east coasts. The collegiate atmosphere is unlike any other venue Ellis has performed in front of, he said.
In a good way.
“Performing in a dirty dive bar in a basement with four guys who don’t actually want you talking is completely different,” Ellis said. “People in college are so open. It’s an audience of people who want to absorb whatever it is that you are presenting.”
The poets who have been to the event say the same thing. This year’s lineup includes returners Francisco, who earned 2009 National Underground Poetry Slam Champion honors along with many other poetry accolades, and Kat “Simply Kat” Magill, who performed at The Anthem in 2011.
Ellis and fellow first-time participants Adriel Luis and Danee “Queen D” Black will round out the group of poets. Powell, the 2007 Spoken Word Artist of the Year at the Bay Area Black Music Awards, will serve as the competition’s master of ceremonies.
Most have received awards or high praise in different slam competitions across the country. That’s usually the case for the lineup each year. Software engineering senior and committee member Mark Lerner said there’s an appeal of the event that has established credibility within the slam poetry landscape in California.
“We’ve been really lucky to have a name for ourselves,” Lerner said. “Anthem is known among poets — and Cal Poly, in general — as a place where spoken words poets are accepted. There is a very good crowd here.”
That stems from a passion for poetry, at least that’s the case for Lerner. He first got involved in spoken word poetry in high school and has been addicted to its rapid-fire metaphors since.
“Spoken word poetry is so high-energy, and so fulfilling, and poets talk about such a wide range of things,” Lerner said. “The use of metaphors and imagery is so heavy, and I think the ability to be swept up in it is wonderful.”
So for him, being such an avid poetry fan, The Anthem is something he looks forward to when it rolls around every year during spring.
“Being able to listen to spoken word poets on YouTube is one thing,” Lerner said. “Being able to see them perform live, speak with them before and after, ask them questions and interact with them, is really something else on a different level.
“Being at a show is just thrilling. You get goose bumps.”
For the poets on stage, they’re looking to put on a good show and introduce the audience to topics and poems they haven’t been exposed to before. Ellis, in particular, wants to be able to have audience members walk away with a few things, above all else.
“Permission to be an authority on poetry,” Ellis said. “Or to inspire them to write poetry themselves, or permission to write poems that are better than mine, because there are probably people in the audience that can.”
He didn’t start writing poetry until he was in his 20s. What he needed, he said, was to see a poet live on stage to truly be inspired — in his words, a poet who was free. He’s hoping he can do that for a few audience members on Wednesday, but only a few, he emphasized.
“Just one or two,” Ellis said. “I try to keep my expectations low.”
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