Performance Review: Christopher Romaguera on the Berkeley and Oakland Poetry Slams

Having just moved to Oakland, when I was informed that I would be covering a couple of poetry slams for Synchronized Chaos, I couldn’t have been more excited.  The last poetry slam I went to in Miami (my hometown), masqueraded as a house party, with two happy pit bulls pacing back and forth on the patio.  When I walked in, a guy who looked like Cheech Marin but sang monotonously like Carlos Santana was at a microphone, surrounded by a couple dozen people, all with bongos and guitars, as Cheech Santana would adlib while the house band played anything and everything (which included Bob Marley’s “Jump Nyabinghi”).  Slams in Miami were a bilingual musical affair, half Def Jam, half Sandra Cisneros.

In New Orleans, my adopted home, slams were musical as well.  There was a rhythm to it, just like everything else in the city.  The last slam I went to in that town featured poets from Team SNO, an awarded poetry team, as well as a poet who was featured in the HBO Series Treme, and the main event of the night was a poet who finished his set dressed up as an alligator.

So I was curious what this slam by the bay would feel like, with every city I’ve lived in being completely different than the next.  And the West felt very different than the Caribbean/Southern mescla that I had experienced in New Orleans and Miami.

The slam I went to was the Berkeley Slam at the Starry Plough, right off Shattuck by the Ashby BART stop.  It was a cold night for this Cuban, and it definitely had me practicing the concept of layers, for the bar, which had a good population to it, was not cold at all.

The host of the Berkeley Slam was a poet who went by the name of Toaster.  Toaster is a high-energy host, which fit the setting well considering the buzz that was coming pre-show from the lively audience.  He was funny, got people’s attention, and whipped out a book of Alicia Keys’ poetry, which he painfully read from, when the crowd wasn’t responding fast or loud enough, as a form of torture (which, I might add, worked quite well).  The audience participates often in this slam, with the judges being volunteers, as well as coming up with the word of the day (which in this case, was “hamartia”).

I was impressed with the diversity of the poets who performed; with everything from letters to Rihanna to poems about admitting to your parents you smoke pot to the troubles that fifth graders in California have with a system that is stacked against them.  Many of the poets incorporated the word of the day without anything too cheap being invoked.  While half the poets were regulars, their names being called out and the energy in the building rocking with them, the other half seemed to be from out of town, or trying their luck out, with respect being paid to them as if they were an intimate friend.

The featured poet performs between the first and second round in this Slam, as well as at the end of the slam.  On this night, the featured poet was Carrie Rudzinski, who was wrapping up her tour on her way home.  Carrie’s poems are phenomenal, and the emotional intensity of them smacks you from the very beginning.  Carrie is a master at establishing the rhythm of her poems early, whether she is repeating lines such as “My God, My God,” or counting failed lovers, you can feel yourself bobbing your head to her beat, as you inch closer and closer to her and farther and farther from the back of your seat.  Whether it is stories of her road trips, running into security for the Governator, or stories about her grandfather and grandmother, Carrie transports you into her world.  And you won’t be leaving it anytime soon, with lines such as “I’ve eaten my reflection enough times, and I am still hungry” sticking with you long after you’ve taken the BART home and planned to go to sleep.

The Berkeley Slam is a fun experience, where you will see great featured poets, along with some regulars and some newbies.  The poetry will always be good, with cash incentives and good crowds fueling the machine that is this slam.  With thematic slams being prevalent, this slam never gets old.  Come to the Starry Plough on Wednesdays for a good time.


On October 25, 2012, I attended the Oakland Poetry Slam at Studio 1924.  Despite the fact that this Slam just so happened to occur during the Game 2 of the World Series, and on the one-year anniversary of Occupy Oakland being raided, I’m glad I went to this event.  The crowd was still really into it, with the poets who performed not being short on talent, intellect or emotion.

The host of the slam was Nazelah, a poet who had just gotten back with her team from Boise, Idaho, where they performed in a poetry slam competition.  After a quick dialogue with the audience, she started the night off with a poem of her own, introducing it as a “Poem for myself and for all of us.”

The moment she got into her rhythm, it was clear why she was the host of this event.  Nazelah’s poetry would set the table for the rest of the performers, as her spoken word had a good rhythm and would have themes that would intersect with the feature’s poetry.  With lines such as “I think of how expensive a shrink would be if I couldn’t write poetry”, the line being punctuated by her shrug, I knew I was in for a night of good spoken word.

After that, we would have everything from a young freestyling poet (“my mind speaks freely, which is why they call it freestyle”), to Patrick, who help runs the poetry slam at the Starry Plough in Berkeley, whose poem talked about “LSD mixers” that his mom and dad would meet at, to a young poet who plowed through her first performance to much applause (“Life is like a roller coaster, I just need someone to hold onto me during the scary parts”) and then couldn’t help but do two more, to a poem that was half sung about “Dancing naked in the rain.”

Then Dahled Jeffries, who runs the Oakland Poetry Slam, came out and performed two poems of his own, including one that he did at the slam competition in Boise last week.  His poems were poignant, with strong imagery and concepts that lead us to the featured poet for the night, such as when he preached a “colorblind state is white privilege defined.”

The featured poet was Marc Marcel, who is a native of Baltimore, Maryland.  Marcel has been touring for quite some time now; he is a published novelist, as well as a spoken word poet who has two CDs out.  Marcel’s poems revolve around a spirituality found in the self.  His slow and precise delivery emphasizes the importance he finds in the words he is speaking.  Lines such as “It’s rather simple, you don’t have to do this in a temple,” cannot be given its rightful justice by just having it put on the page.  You have to hear him perform it, with that perfect delivery, as he stares into the audience, to truly experience it.  When in the poem titled “Now”, he repeats the line “Just tell me you remember, no matter how long it’s been,” it resonated with me in such a way that the line kept humming in my head for the rest of the night.

The Oakland Poetry Slam I went to was full of talented poets who performed fantastically.  Just by staying and talking to them afterwards, I feel like I learned more about Oakland, the spoken word scene here, and what it means to be a writer, than anything else I’ve done in town.  A good group that is filled with substance, there was quite a few people in the audience who were inspired to do their own thing after seeing other poets come up.  A moving event that happens on the second and fourth Thursday of every month, the next one will be on November 8th, at the Spice Monkey.  Come out and see some good poetry; you’ll definitely find me there.