ENCINITAS — Bruce Stephens, or “Swami Bruce” as he’s known, calls the poetry slam a “gathering of the tribes.” The burgeoning North County poetry scene will be in full force Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. for the La Paloma Winter Poetry Slam.
More than ever, poetry is alive and well in North County, said Stephens. Young and old, their talent will be on display.
“We have everything from high school students whose parents have signed a permission slip to 80-year-old ladies,” Stephens said.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve heard an 80-year-old-woman read poems that will make you blush,” Stephens added with a laugh.
Compared to when he began attending the poetry slams 10 years ago, Stephens said there are more poetry meetups across San Diego these days. In particular, new poetry groups have formed in Encinitas, Carlsbad and Oceanside. And he noted more young poets are participating in the bi-annual Encinitas slams.
“We get a lot of college students who come out to support their professors, Stephens said. “They get taken in by the atmosphere and fun of it all and decide they want to take part.”
As well as San Diego-based writers, poets “come out of the woodwork” from across Southern California, and even occasionally from across the country for the slam.
A major reason they’re drawn to the event? The format. Poets recite three original works of poetry, and they’re judged on delivery and content. Nothing is considered off topic or sacred. Consequently, works range from personal confessions to political rants to irreverent talks. Stephens warned that the readings aren’t always PG.
“We’re all about free speech,” Stephens said.
Poets are encouraged to show up at 5 p.m. at La Paloma Theatre and submit their names. 30 minutes later, the organizers randomly pull out 17 names of poets who will read at the event. A winner is chosen after three elimination rounds. Also, the audience puts money into a popcorn bucket throughout the event, and most of the cash — sometimes as much as $800 — is given to the winner, with some money going to second and third place.
Given the freewheeling nature of the slam, it’s important to “leave your ego at the door,” said Danny Salzhandler, the event’s organizer. Salzhandler moved to Encinitas in the mid-1990s from Texas, where he worked in construction. But upon his arrival here, he immersed himself in Encinitas’ poetry scene.
“We have some real talented poets — some who are real funky and off the wall,” Salzhandler said.
Salzhandler cited Jim Babwe, a poet who always seems to get picked to read at the slams, as a good example.
Babwe said slams “aren’t your stereotypical poetry readings” because there’s “way more ruckus going on.”
His favorite part is getting immediate feedback from the audience.
“It’s a lot of fun getting up there on the stage,” Babwe said. “Plus, writing in isolation has proven to be dangerous for writers. Feeding off the community aspect is great.”