Money Talks


The atmosphere had turned a bit too pious for 337’s taste. The irreverent 27-year-old, whose real name is Desmond Jones, had taken the stage at the Blue Room, a hallowed place normally dedicated to the cult of jazz and its aging congregation of fans.

But this was the one night of the month the hall in the historic 18th and Vine District was taken over by folks mostly in their teens and twenties. And on this night, the entertainment had turned churchy.

337 had a solution for that.

“The same lady that you were freakin’ on the dance floor,” he intoned, “is the same lady on Sunday morning screaming, ‘Thank you, Lord!'”

Gasps came from the audience. But the imposing African-American man, who stands about 6 feet 4, didn’t stop with that provocation. He launched into a string of accusations about churchgoer hypocrisy in a voice that boomed into every corner of the room.

He resembled, in fact, a talented preacher — one who had become a fiery apostate.

“Some of God’s children are out here pimping religion, using the building fund to buy tricked-out Lincolns,” he rhymed, appearing to scandalize the mostly black audience. “So excuse me if I don’t make it on Sunday because I can’t shake what I drank on Saturday!”

The crowd reacted to the spoken-word performance with thundering applause.

Its message, however, didn’t win over a secret panel of judges, which gave first place and a $100 check to another performer with an alias, Ed Rollins, a bookish man with a huge, toothy smile who, as Spoken Vision, had stepped up to the stage before 337 and delivered a spoken affirmation of his faith.

It was a victory for the Lord-lovin’ poet over the heretic 337, who took home a check for $50 and second place. On other nights, though, the iconoclasts win out over the faithful.

And the romantics usually get shut out entirely.

That’s how it is on Jazz Poetry Jam nights at the Blue Room, a surprisingly successful new competition that draws young poets who joust for modest prize money with the determination of street fighters. Since its inception last October, the contest has grown in popularity, attracting about 25 wordsmiths each month and capacity crowds of 125 people who occasionally rise to their feet in ovations.

First-timers give monotone, head-down readings. Those who talk of rainbows and kittens are barely tolerated. The real fireworks tend to come from the same set of performers, month after month.

There’s 337, the agitator. Spoken Vision, the divine. Simeon Taylor, the charmer. “Davar,” the mystic. And as we watched them clash month after month, it became obvious that for some, Kansas City’s most intense poetry slam is a tournament for more than just pocket change.

“There’s always been something magical about the Blue Room,” says Bryan Long, a University of Missouri-Kansas City employee who competes under the name Davar. “Every time I’m down on Vine, I feel a little more nervous than I do at other spots. I’m truly honored to be in the same space that greats such as Coltrane, Bird, Ellington, Monk and even the local stars like the late Claude ‘Fiddler’ Williams and Ida McBeth have performed. You can feel the vibes of those trailblazers. It’s deep, man.”

For many poets, though, the allure of the Blue Room readings has more to do with money than with mystique. Strange Früt, a catering service that plans to open an organic restaurant in the 18th and Vine neighborhood, contributes $250 in cash prizes every month. For poets looking to score a little dough for their performances, there’s almost nothing else in town.


Simeon Taylor, whose soothing delivery recalls A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, often takes home money. His works range from love serenades to nostalgia to strings of similes linked together in a hip-hop style. In February, he debuted a piece criticizing competitive open-mike nights; much to his surprise, it scored second place and earned him $50.

But the talented reciter says he doesn’t like what happens to performers when money’s on the line. “When it comes to poetry, I’m old-fashioned,” he says. “A lot of venues are using poetry as a means of getting people to come to their spots. Then you get judged on who has the tightest poem. Well, people are just writing about their personal experiences, so people are getting rated on who’s been through the hardest struggle.”

But Davar, who usually laces his poetry with conspiratorial references to a spooky New World Order, says cash-prize slams are a necessary draw.

“It’s not me. I’ll say that. I believe poetry is about expression, not competition,” he says. “But it seems like nowadays, heads are gettin’ props for delivery and wordplay instead of content.”

At January’s contest, the room is nearly full just a few minutes after 7 on a frigid evening. The sign-up sheet for reciters sits on a table by the front door. The first 6 of its 25 slots are empty — no one wants to go first.

Experienced readers have learned to look out for 337’s name on the list — going immediately after the firebrand is usually poetic suicide. Only first-timers, unaware of his impact on the audience, tend to sign up below his name.

Near the dormant jukebox, a couple of bards are talking shop. “I had to stop because tears were running down my eyes,” says the poet who calls himself Reality, describing a new piece he’s working on. “I usually cry when the words won’t come,” responds Glenn North.

The room is filled with a steady buzz as members of the crowd, mostly young African-Americans in upscale attire, find their seats. Then the background chatter falls silent as the house jazz trio — bassist Seth Lee, pianist Oscar Williams and drummer DeAndre Wiseman — launches into a smooth number.

The music gives the impression that this is a relaxed setting, and in some ways it is. The Blue Room contests aren’t a local version of Live at the Apollo; the audience here isn’t looking to hound a poet off the stage. In fact, if a green versifier openly acknowledges having stage fright, the admission is met with boisterous applause and shouts of support.

But this is a competition, and once the band stops and hostess Adrie Taylor begins calling names, a palpable sense of anxiety ripples through the room.

Not every poem is a masterpiece. When one newly written piece degenerates into sugary baby talk, the stifled groans in the audience become a low roar.

But there are several surprising new talents, readers who haven’t appeared before. Wallis Ivory, a rare participant older than 30, is all class with his smart suit and perfect posture, his hands clasped at waist level during his delivery. His specialty is writing abstract first-person narrative poems. Tonight, he is God.

Another newcomer, Badru, apologizes before reading his poem — “Because everyone’s been so positive,” he says. Then he recounts a harrowing episode involving bullying and parental neglect. “Are you for real?” someone impressed with the performance blurts from the crowd after he finishes.


Clearly, though, the standouts are, once again, 337, a man named Raenaldo Torres and Simeon Taylor.

“Daddy taught me how to roll grass that made him cough,” 337 shouts. “See, Daddy was a playboy, pimp-slash-budhead,” he says, building a portrait of his deadbeat father who, he fears, “genetically molded” him for the same fate.

“Tried to be a pimp, but the bitch shorted my cash,” he says later in the poem. “Didn’t know I’d go to jail for whipping her ass.”

In “My Gift,” 337 appears to bare his soul and throw himself on the mercy of his audience. “Upon this mike, I spit my fears, pains and dramatic history. Praying that your energy will heal me and take me away from my lifestyle of poverty.”

It takes several minutes for the evening’s only standing ovation to subside. As it does, someone shouts, “I’d hate to go after that.”

That task falls to an obviously petrified young woman who prefaces her poem by saying it’s her first-ever attempt at verse.

Later, Torres begins his appearance by singing two bars of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” — poorly. “You have just witnessed firsthand how far my singing career has gotten me. Absolutely nowhere,” he says, his self-effacing poetry fitting perfectly with his timid stage presence. But if he appears mousy, his poetry grows surprisingly forceful as he reads.

Taylor relies on clever wordplay, asking, for example, why people find it so easy to pay at the register for a coat but so hard to register to vote. Whereas 337 has knocked the audience back in its seats, Taylor gets them to lean forward and wrestle with the insights of his lines.

After the last performer, there’s a brief intermission while the judges tally their votes. For at least half of the participants, the placings are irrelevant — the point for these poets has been to perform in front of a packed house, and they begin to put on coats and make for the door. The rest, hoping for prizes, chat with each other, laughing nervously.

Then Adrie Taylor takes the stage and calls the top three vote getters to the stage. The usual suspects will be taking home money. Torres is third, Simeon Taylor second. And on top, it’s 337.

This is how much pressure Raenaldo Torres is feeling when he recites a poem: If he does it poorly, he may not be able to pay bills.

Luckily for his checkbook, he’s been on a roll lately.

In April, the man with golden-toned skin and deep-set eyes quit his job at the Hyatt to pursue his poetry-slam career full time. “I have to pour out my soul piece by piece,” he writes in a recent poem, “and fit each piece into time slots of 3 minutes, ’cause I have to win slams, ’cause I’ve gotta eat.”

Because Kansas City offers few lucrative venues for spoken word other than the Blue Room’s every-third-Tuesday-of-the-month Jazz Poetry Jams (Torres won the $100 first prize in April and May) and the annual Smoking Word competition (Torres placed second this year, earning $250), he must travel often in search of poetry paychecks. Torres recently visited Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Denver; and St. Louis. A Miami event awaits in early June.

There’s a cash-prize competition somewhere in the country almost every day, including several times a week in cities such as Atlanta and Miami.

Dana Gilmore, now a featured poet in the Tony-award-winning Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, recalls having no outlet for her skills as a high school student in Kansas City. Her stint as a featured poet at the Blue Room in December was her first local performance.


“Kansas City is definitely up-and-coming, and I was impressed by the talent level, but there’s not as much going on as in Atlanta, where there’s a poetry venue every night,” she says.

But how does a poet who hasn’t hit it big, like Torres, make ends meet when the price of travel far exceeds the prize money? “For some features, the promoter will provide a bus, plane or train ticket, and they will usually take care of you once you arrive at their city by either getting you a hotel room or letting you crash at their crib,” Torres explains. “And other than poetry contests, there are plenty of opportunities for full-time poets, including performing at colleges, churches, high schools and workshops of all types.”

Torres, who started as a rapper, first experimented with spoken-word poetry in 2002. His debut disc, Quiet Nites, which combines hip-hop and poetry, sold out its 500-copy pressing, and he’s already moved more than 100 units of the newly released follow-up, Priceless Poetry, in less than a month. The poet has a charmingly casual delivery and a deceptively deliberate, nervous act.

Some of his work approaches 337’s invective, but he tends to read less flammable fare at contests.

“You never know who the judges are,” he explains. “When it comes to competition, I try to do a piece that will be acceptable to everyone.”

So far, his attempt to exist on his contest winnings has been a strain.

“It’s been almost two months, and I am so far behind,” he says. “It’s a very hard thing to do, and it was a big step to take. But I can still sleep better knowing that I’m doing poetry, and that’s what I love.”

Torres has had to start looking for a part-time job. He didn’t prepare for his transition to full-time poet by saving for months in advance. “In retrospect, after looking at my bank account, I wish that I had saved, but too bad, I didn’t,” he says. “I just followed my heart. Poetry is my priority. I feel as though my messages are things that people need to hear, so that’s my full-time job. And hopefully I’ll get paid for spreading the message.”

For now, Torres has made a few small sacrifices, including getting rid of cable television, selling his old TV, computer and stereo, and eliminating restaurant meals.

He’s also changed his approach at competitions to improve his odds.

“You have to change certain things and have a wider selection of topics,” he says. “I’m not saying that you have to compromise your art, but you have to think more and write more pieces.”

At an April slam in Denver, Torres encountered an audience that was almost entirely white. He made some last-minute adjustments.

“I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that I would make it past the first round, because I was afraid that they wouldn’t relate to my poems,” Torres says. “So I tried not to use as much slang, and I used wittier works instead of my struggle pieces.”

The strategy worked; Torres claimed the $25 top prize.

Kansas City’s spoken-word scene traces its roots back to 1997, when Glenn North, Marcus Brown and Jay Hawkins started the open-mike event Verbal Attack at Club Mardi Gras at 19th and Vine.


In Verbal Attack’s early days, poets couldn’t always count on an attentive audience.

“It was a social scene,” North says. “People would look at it as a place to meet people and, oh yeah, there’s poetry there, too.”

The scene eventually migrated to 16th and Main, where Danny’s Big Easy started hosting a spoken-word showcase on Tuesday nights in September 2001. In 2003, North collaborated with American Jazz Museum Education Coordinator Adrie Taylor on a series titled “One Mic, Two Rhythms & Poetic Pieces,” a teen tutorial program that evolved into the monthly Jazz Poetry Jams.

Meanwhile, several poets decided they’d had enough of the scene at Danny’s, where the readings were little more than an afterthought to the social scene. Held at Trago, at 11th and Grand, the new Wednesday-night readings, called Urban Literation, brought in a large crowd looking for poetry for its own sake — with none of the contest pressure of the Blue Room.

The vibe at Trago’s today is more relaxed but contemplative, an environment that’s become a natural counterpart to the Blue Room’s pressure cooker. For 337 and other poets who save up their most gut-wrenching expositions for when money’s on the line at the Jazz Poetry Jam, the Trago scene has become something like a practice arena to work out the kinks in new pieces. Performers even take requests, running through trademark poems while some regulars in the audience mouth along.

337’s Trago appearances are occasionally still explosive, but he’s usually much more relaxed than at the Blue Room, reading from poems in progress while leafing through a notebook — something he’d never do at the Poetry Jam.

The lanky poet says he took up the art in high school to impress his female classmates. (His handle, he says, is an inversion of a good friend’s name, Lee.) “Come to find out that doesn’t work,” he says now with a laugh. He dwells on the horrors of his upbringing, he says, to help audiences learn from the mistakes — drug use, violence — that he so unflatteringly lays bare. “That matters to me more than getting a check,” he says.

Still, because 337, like Torres, relies on his poetry winnings at the moment, the checks matter.

Formerly an employee at a grain elevator, 337 is looking for a job that will take advantage of his speaking skills. “Until then, I’m fortunate enough to have a woman with a good job that can support me.”

Earlier this year, he placed among the top three at the Blue Room’s monthly open-mike competition for three successive sessions, racking up $250 in total winnings. But when a dry spell followed, 337 became frustrated.

“I started getting greedy,” he says. “I was winning everything, and I thought I always would. When I stopped, I got depressed.

“For me, poetry is an outlet for hostility,” he continues. “There’s no way I could lie about my family. People can feel that it’s an act or a dramatic skit, but that means they’re missing the point.”

Sometimes, 337’s hostility gets spread around to his fellow competitors. Besides tweaking the religious poets he often competes with, 337 also tears into colleagues he thinks are putting on airs with big words and pretentious affectations.

But that kind of caustic candor has cost him prize money.

In March, 337 scandalized Blue Room judges with a profanity-packed prayer that began with the phrase Dear Lord, ended with amen and incorporated fuck, bitch and ass along the way.


“I needed to vent,” he says. “Nobody liked it, and I didn’t win. Oh, well. Another day, another dollar.”

Although 337 might ruffle a few feathers, it’s difficult to alienate audiences for long in a scene that prides itself on unfailing tolerance. Love poems and anti-love-poem pieces, black-nationalist calls to arms and unapologetic statements of political apathy, calls for Christian conversion and harsh critiques of the church — opposing viewpoints can follow each other back-to-back without poets sparring or audience members taking sides.

If the Blue Room’s environment is a tolerant one, however, 337 is finding that the audience’s familiarity with him has other drawbacks. In March, he found himself out of the money for the first time in months when his repeat performance of “My Gift” failed to impress judges. Simeon Taylor, too, failed to score that month with a poem that previously had snared him a prize. 337 says he was just trying to refine his delivery of the powerful poem. But it was clear that he was going to need some new stuff to get himself back on top.

By now, the cash-prize competition has had a Darwinian effect on the Blue Room readings. Awkward amateurs were once common, but increasingly, only polished veterans participate. The first-timers have migrated to Trago, where they can work their way up with weekly practice in a no-pressure environment. The first-week-of-American Idol feel is gone, making the Poetry Jam less of an endurance test and more of a solid showcase.

Judges, meanwhile, have raised their standards steadily, and 337 worries that they’re becoming inured to his fiery style.

“That has stifled me here,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong — I love the fact that people already know who I am. But when you’re doing a competition, people look at you differently when the host goes up and says, ‘Get ready, because this next brother, I don’t know what he’s going to do.’ People judge you that much harder if you’re hyped up that much. They think, What makes this brother so bad?”

During a return visit to another event he had won the previous year, 337 received this introduction from the host: “Well, this brother thinks he’s gonna win already.” 337 didn’t make it to the second round that day.

“In the back of the judge’s mind, he’s going, ‘He thinks he’s going to win? I can change that,'” 337 says. “How do you compete with that? Sometimes it’s good to have notoriety, but when you go somewhere where people haven’t heard you, they accept you better. People who have seen you, nothing that you say or do will shock them.”

He’ll never get back the shock value of his early appearances, such as a November performance that for many was the first experience of 337’s rhetoric.

“Since the day I was born, they’ve been calling me a nigga,” he boomed in that contest, spitting the epithet with dramatic disdain. “Told me I was going to be a po’ nigga, I was gonna live my life like a po’ nigga and that I was going to die a po’ nigga. So die, nigga. Nigga, die.”

He delivered his lines ferociously, with gestures that matched the intensity of his diction.

“I am a black man, strong in speech with hostile deliverance, so hate me or love me, but you will feel this,” he said. Every audience member seemed riveted. Earlier in the evening, the audience had offered poets vocal support, greeting especially impressive lines or insightful observations with “mmm hmm” or “that’s right.” But 337 left no opening for feedback. He was a rebel without a pause, and his quick-paced piece left no space for himself to catch his breath, let alone for anyone else to work in a word.


“I am a black man who doesn’t steal or kill, and every time my cell phone rings, it’s not another drug deal,” he recited. “I got mountains to climb, and destiny is calling. And by the hands of another nigga, I’m not falling … So if you wanna die, nigga, go ahead and die, nigga. Just make sure that you only take yo’ life, nigga.”

The performance brought down the house.

“Is spoken-word poetry really poetry?” 337 asks. “Some purists feel it’s more performance-oriented, but you write poetry that fits well in both worlds.

“Some poetry was meant to be read, and some was meant to be spoken,” he continues. “It’s all about wording. I try not to write poetry that needs to be read aloud, because I don’t want to be up on the mike and have people looking at me like ‘Are you done yet?'”

Eventually, 337 wants to put together a book of his slam pieces. “Maybe someday, someone will be able to use it in competition,” he says, referring to his own occasional use of other poets’ work onstage. “I do want to get all of my pieces published and pass it forward, because there are so many poets out there that can recite so much better than me that it just makes my jaw drop. That to me would be the ultimate praise, to have someone recite something of mine and rip it.”

But the caustic poet may have had second thoughts about his style recently. After a couple of months without cash wins, 337 says he was struck when he heard Torres recite lines about how his colleagues all seemed to be saving up their best stuff to win money. He’d rather reach minds than take home cash, Torres said.

“That touched me,” 337 says. “That’s exactly what I was doing. I wouldn’t recite any of my best pieces that I know would touch people, because I was saving those for open-mike competitions. I would write something, anything, but I would not perform my best pieces.”

At last week’s contest, 337 tried a new strategy, getting playful with a piece called “Poetic Mall” that he’d performed earlier that day at a grade school. Spoken Vision preached about misuse of the word love and made a jab at R. Kelly. Taylor, meanwhile, incorporated African chants and tribal rhythms in “Recipe for Peace.”

And for the first time in the contest’s history, there was a tie — but only for third place.

Glenn North tried to break it by calling for applause for each poet, which eliminated 337. But the other two, Spoken Vision and Taylor, were still locked. Voices in the audience called for a slam-off.

Spoken Vision led off with a holy verbal avalanche that played like a prayer from speed-rapper Twista. Taylor countered with a hip-hop-style stream of similes. Again, the applause for each of them was equally raucous. North looked lost, but the poets bailed him out by deciding to split the prize money.

The final take for each after all that effort: $25. “We find verbal warriors who actually try to live on their rhyming conquests. ”

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