Spoken word artists and slam poets take life’s trauma and the beauty, reorganize it, build it, break it down and do it again. They will make you laugh, smile, cry, feel something. Austin poet LaLove Robinson has willingly exposed her trauma and beauty on stage. Taking control of her life, narrator of her stories, not asking permission, giving herself the respect necessary to sway.
“You thought that a woman would choke on your legalities, but nope; you’ll never own my female anatomy, and I’m not proud to remove anything from me,” she recited in a poem for East by South East in 2012.
Robinson is a mother, award-winning poet, a medical-billing educator, a criminal justice student at Huston-Tillotson University, and the co-creator of Spitfest, the Austin-based quarterly poetry slam competition where 12 poets duel until the champion is left standing before the crowd that booed and cheered their way into the minds and emotions of the four judges who raise red and yellow flags to announce who advances to the next round.
“The first inspiration to do Spitfest was that I saw how much poetry changes lives,” Robinson says, recalling how she began reading poetry around 2001, shortly after her father was released from prison and before his death, when she saw a commercial for an open mic at Joyce Adejumo’s Mitchie’s Fine Black Art when it was located on Rocky Lane in East Austin.
“The second inspiration was that I belonged to a writing collective, and I still belong to it. (Austin playwright) Zell Miller was in the group, and he became my mentor into this venture of Spitfest. He helped cultivate it and had a lot of ideas. He has been voted best playwright in Austin. He is a poet. He is a father. So there is a lot I connected with.”
In it’s tenth year, Spitfest #28 will open at Spiderhouse ballroom on Friday at 11 p.m. It will provide a kind of after-party for the second day of the Women of the World Poetry Festival, which Austin is hosting Wednesday through finals at the Paramount Theater on Saturday. Previously, Spitfest was held at the now-closed Ruta Maya Café.
“Spitfest goes three rounds, which is what an official slam does. We take 12 participants, which is the same as an official slam,” Robinson says. “The difference is, Spitfest is a head-to-head battle. Usually at slams, one poet goes up at a time. At Spitfest, two people go on at once and the poet who is not speaking faces the speaker. You win by flags, and it’s very competitive. The show goes by extremely fast, and the audience loves a good competition. It’s Hip-Hop infused by the DJ and the band.”
To recognize women in coordination with Women of the World Poetry Festival, on Friday Robinson will for the first time host Spitfest (an honor usually reserved for Robinson’s Spitfest collaborator, Miller). The festival will lend a female DJ and band. Usually, Spitfest is backed by DJ Offthe Top and Hip Hop band Ugly Elephant.
The band, the DJ, the host, the poets—it all adds up to a late night of co-creation. In 2012, SCIENTIFIC REPORTS released a very technical report that essentially said what every Spitfest fan already knows; that poets forming freestyle lyrics to a beat enter the flow state.
The study found that freestyle rappers turn up the frontal cortex of the brain, increasing activity in the areas controlling thought and action, while turning down the parts of the brain that control and suppress. When freestyling, poets create unique pathways in their brains connecting language, mood, and movement and intention is coupled with action. Reciting memorized lyrics does not produce the same results.
At Spitfest, you’ll find some freestyling, but mainly memorized performances. Either way, what you get isn’t likely to be coming out of 3D printer any time soon. Spoken word is both therapy and education. Spoken word can create community connections.
Spitfest is an off-shoot of the Neo-Soul Lounge and Open Mic, which meets weekly and is currently hosted by Austin poet Brian Francis at Mr. Catfish & More on Airport Boulevard. Spitfest usually offers community incentives, like canned-food admittance or reduced price for bringing a friend. “We try to keep this funky sharework,” Robinson says.
“Neo-soul is where I started. That is my home. I hosted there for the first time. I read poetry there for the first time. That is where my poetry family is. I still go there,” says Robinson. “Spitfest is a spin-off of Neo-Soul. They are brother and sister. People hear ‘Neo-Soul’ and they think Black People, but it’s not. It’s an eclectic group. Open mic is poetry, it’s Hip Hop, it’s open art – period.”
In 2012, Robinson was on the Neo-Soul team when it won first place at the National Poetry Slam finals, which were held in Charlotte, North Carolina. This year’s finals will be held in Oakland, California. Robinson refers to Austin’s other primary poetry collective, Austin Poetry Slam, as “the mother of Austin slams.”
“A lot of cities have more than one team. We were just doing open mics, and we were new,” Robinson says of Neo-Soul’s inception around 2006. “We thought, it’s just a matter of style, of choice. Choice is always good. And we’ve had people from each team make the other team. Teams want to go to nationals to compete at the national level. With two teams, there’s more opportunity to compete.”
Ebony Stewart, who was won the National Poetry Awards Best Slam Poet title in 2005, as well as the Austin Neo-Soul title in 2007, 2009, and 2011 agrees. “A team can only have five members, so you need more teams.”
For now, Robinson plans to keep sharing Spitfest with the community. “My art and my poetry opened other doors for me. Now I am able to produce. Now I am able to host,” she says. “I was interested in those things, and they became available to me through writing. I try to inspire and lift up and do something in the community so I can give back.”