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Though slam poetry may be on an upswing here in the States, it's still far more popular in Europe. "If you go to Germany and you have an audience of 200 people, that's a small audience," says Lee. She's toured Europe (and has been on NPR's Snap Judgment five times, making her the program's most-featured female poet), and says slam poetry in the United States lacks in terms of substance. "Most of the poetry is about nothing, because people fear judgment," she says. "They fear accountability of changing thought."
Lee, who has been writing since age eight, has only been slamming for the past six years. "To a lot of people, that's not a long time," she says. "A lot of people tell me, 'You're still a baby until you've been doing it for 10-plus years.'"
If that's the case, then most of competitors at the North Bay Poetry Slam are still in the womb.
Unlike Tourettes Without Regrets, which is so popular that it's forced to pick competitors through random lottery, just about everyone who signs up can get a spot in Sebastopol. The open mic preceding the slam is a good place for first-timers to cut their teeth. "To get on a stage for the first time, to share something as delicate as your heartfelt emotions written into a poem—that's a lot for someone to be comfortable with," says Sage. "It doesn't matter if you forget your words, if you have to read it, if you're not super-confident about it, the audience will support you. And that's why I love our show."
That's not always the case with slam shows, she adds. Audiences at the weekly Berkeley slam can rip apart a poet who's unprepared or just doesn't have the lyrical chops needed to keep it interesting. Lee started working the door at the slam before trying it out herself, and pulls no punches. "When people are up there talking about nothing or saying that we're all nothing, it's hard for me to listen to," she says. "I'm not saying that I get mad, but I truly get bored." She keeps a book in her purse, she says, and she knows how to use it.
DeWolf understands what it's like to start small and knows that it doesn't mean things will stay that way. "It all kind of started in my little small town when I started getting kicked out of my own open mics. Slams are the only show that would not kick me out," he says.
"I have a lot of love for people who just completely are defiant in the space of small towns and create a space for people to speak and to create an open forum. It's like flamethrowers for moths. There's a lot of magic that can happen with that," says DeWolf. "It certainly changed my life."