Poetry can never be called boring at Bao Phi's spoken-word series, which celebrates five years of mike-rocking shows Saturday.
Sitting in the audience during a spoken-word show at the Loft is like stumbling into a very personal conversation with a complete stranger -- one who wants to pour his heart out as if you were his mama.
"Yeah, it can be pretty intense," said the poet Bao Phi, who created the Loft's series. "But it can be really funny, too."
The best spoken-word poets can make you laugh and cry in one poem. For five years, Phi has brought poets of that caliber to the Loft to perform at Equilibrium (EQ for short), a bimonthly showcase for artists of color that celebrates its anniversary Saturday. More than a dozen alums of the HBO series "Def Poetry" have graced EQ's cozy performance space, making it a serious spot to find rock-star-quality poets.
"The beauty of EQ is it's like seeing Prince at First Ave," said former "Def Poetry" performer Robert Karimi. "It's a small, intimate crowd where you are that close to an author who knows how to speak their words. You get to be a part of an experience."
It's a rare experience, too. While the Twin Cities has a couple other series dedicated to poets of color, including Poets of the City at Picosa restaurant in Minneapolis, none have scorched mikes longer than EQ.
"I don't know of an event like that around the nation, and I've been around," said Karimi.
Phi is about as good a poet as any to head EQ. He's experienced all aspects of the national spoken-word scene. He dominated local slams (poetry competitions) in the late '90s and placed sixth in the 2000 National Poetry Slam. He's been featured on "Def Poetry," too.
Five years ago, slams had become the primary outlet for spoken word. Their popularity even produced a hit indie film (called "Slam," of course). But Phi was all slammed out.
"The bad part about slams is you only get three minutes to show your craft," he said. "There's a lot of pressure in that. And it can get really ugly. People can get really petty when competition is involved."
EQ would be a place for poets to put on a show. It would also be a space primarily for artists of color, something Phi has drawn criticism for.
"Some people have accused us of being reverse racists, which I think is ridiculous," Phi said. "If you put a bunch of artists of color in a room with an audience of color, there's a tremendous opportunity for self-empowerment and self-representation. And we need more of that."
'The Brian Boitano of slam'
For EQ's fifth anniversary, Phi is bringing in some heavy hitters: Regie Cabico and D'Lo, both touring poets who know something about the struggle for self-representation.
Cabico, 37, was one of the first openly gay poets on the national spoken-word scene in the early '90s. His wit, and willingness to put his life onstage, made him a slam champion for the better part of that decade.
"At this point I'm like the Brian Boitano of slam," the New York-based poet said. "So now I'm looking for like 'Slam on Ice' or the 'Slamcapades.' "
In 15 years as a professional poet, he's also been a theater actor, an artistic director of an arts organization and a teacher. "My whole mission is to liberate people," he said. "I want people to share themselves, whether it be about their sexuality, race or class."
Of course, finding places to support that openness isn't always easy.
"There isn't a lot of spaces that would just take me and what I do," Cabico said. "So something like EQ is that antidote, a space where I can just be me."
D'Lo, 29, describes herself as "born gay into a Hindu family and raised by hip-hop."
The L.A.-based poet has pushed her work into the theater realm with "Ramble-Ations," a one-woman show in which she inhabits various characters, including her immigrant mother, to come to terms with her multifaceted and sometimes contradictory upbringing. Bits and pieces of the play sometimes pop up in her spoken-word performances.
Poetry elitists have criticized spoken word for focusing too much on identity politics. That's silly, D'Lo said: "How else are young people supposed to be heard? Spoken word is about writing from the perspective of self, so that you learn more about who you are in a world that is never going to validate you."
Phi said EQ has never had a problem garnering an audience that wants to hear this kind of poetry. But he still gets nervous before every show, before the audience floods in.
"From the beginning, I never knew how long it would last," Phi said. Will EQ last another five years?
"I hope so," he said.
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