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Words of struggle and hope

Members of Damn Slam L.A. turned their personal traumas into gripping poetry, winning over local audiences. Now, the wordsmiths are taking their works to the national championship this week in Massachusetts.

August 09, 2011|By Nate Jackson, Los Angeles Times
  • Clockwise from left, poets Tamara Blue, Gia Scott-Heron, Damnyo Lee and Matt Sedillo are part of the L.A. poetry slam team.
Clockwise from left, poets Tamara Blue, Gia Scott-Heron, Damnyo Lee and… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

In the thriving local slam poetry scene, the Damn Slam L.A. team stands out not only for its poetry, but also for the stories that inspire its members.

The team — including Gia Scott-Heron, daughter of the late influential jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron — has faced daunting struggles since its formation in May by a group of local poets. Within a week of inception, the group was dealing with everything from the death of Gia's father to the news that the team's coach (Tamara Blue) was pregnant in a household where she was the sole breadwinner.

"We use all of these experiences to put together a group of poems that mean something to us and, hopefully, mean something to the audience we present it to," noted 23-year-old team member Yazmin Watkins.

Those gripping stories of trauma, hope and everyday life have earned them an invitation to be one of 76 slam teams at the National Poetry Slam championship in Cambridge, Mass., this week. And, after spending the last few months peddling handmade books of their work to finance the trip, they're on their way.

The Damn Slam team was forged in battle — or, in this case, poetry reading competitions. Dozens of local wordsmiths battled in April during a grand slam — poetry performances judged by an audience to determine who would be recruited to join various groups.

Damn Slam is just one in a constellation of Southland teams. Others, such as Brass Knuckles in Leimert Park, Hollywood Slam and the San Diego Slam team, are also competing at this year's nationals, where the winning crew will receive $2,000. The competition, started in 1990, is a four-day tournament sprawled across multiple venues in a different city each year.

'The Daddy Poem'

In front of strangers recently at an Echo Park coffeehouse, tears wet Scott-Heron's face. It's two months since the death of her father, and the piece her team dubbed "the Daddy Poem" remains a hard one to perform. But this is the kind of practice she needs.

"Everyone is expecting me to step in your shoes, but you're a Size 11 and I'm a Size 7, so that isn't gonna happen … they never told me you were that sick, Daddy… Sometimes I feel so damn lonely," she recites. Nearby, her Damn Slam teammates look on proudly, occasionally piping in with hoots and hollers.

Scott-Heron, 34, joined the team in May, and her writing is a natural outgrowth of processing the emotions welling up inside her. Her summer has been spent performing constantly on L.A.'s slam poetry scene for money to buy plane tickets.

Once the Damn Slam team was set, Scott-Heron was aligned with the people she now calls her second family: Matt Sedillo, 29 (2011's L.A. grand slam champion); Watkins; Damnyo Lee, 28; and veteran slammer Blue.

"Life was happening. Nothing stops because you join a slam team," said Blue, who at the time of the competition doubted her financial ability to even join a team after learning that she was pregnant with her second child.

Meanwhile, the rest of the members have also been dealing with their own turmoils: Watkins, a slam rookie, is coping with her father's leukemia, which was diagnosed a week after she joined the team; Sedillo, who'd been homeless for a brief time, has been busy helping his mother fend off foreclosure; and Lee, a poet activist for gay and lesbian rights, had just been dumped by her girlfriend of two years.

"All of the bad things really came after the team was formed," jokes Sedillo.

Aside from it being their moniker, the Damn Slam is also the name of the venue for poetry housed at the Attic Theatre in Culver City. On a recent Sunday night, the team's members met in a large upstairs loft inside the theater to rehearse. Gathered around a large folding table, they combed over the arsenal of poems they'd use for the nationals.

Lee gathered her thoughts and began her poem about living in poverty: "Stress stays up at night with me, whispers in my ear. Sweet dissolution and denial become my drinking buddies, keeping me company along with misery and cheap beer."

"Make sure you get all your jitters out before you step onstage," Blue says sharply. "If you're not confident, I'm not putting you up there."

A husky, bearded Sedillo lightens things up with an animated poem about his misadventures in love, a humorous departure from his stacks of poems about politics and revolution.

"She said, 'Matt, I think you're only after one thing,'" he says. "I was like 'Girl, you know that ain't true. What do you mean? You know I wanna take you to the park, feed you ice cream, stomp on some grapes as I carry you through wine country…'"

Regardless of the subject, the struggle to get to the nationals has taught team members that airing out stress in front of each other is a valuable poetic inspiration.

"Each person at one point came to practice and was like, 'Yo, I haven't paid my rent this month. I don't know where the money's coming from.' Or, 'Really miss my dad today,'" Blue said. "It's helped us develop a truly intimate group."

nate.jackson@latimes.com

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