A-Verse to Tradition

"Ask your doctor if this poem is right for you," Bill Campana begins innocently enough. "I took Levitra."

You can imagine what follows.

Forget Browning and Byron -- here are their professional descendants. Campana and poets like him are the sometimes funny, sometimes ribald, sometimes passionate participants in Mesa's poetry slams, and this month they're celebrating 10 years of spitting out hard-hitting verses in the Valley.

Poetry slam began as an alternative to traditional poetry, which was seen as elitist, says Bob Nelson, poet and owner of The Anthology Cafe. The upstart version appealed to Nelson, who, in November 1994, arranged for Mesa's Essenza Coffee House to host weekly slams. Over the years, the readings spawned the opening of The Anthology Cafe (which also hosts weekly readings) and the development of a nonprofit organization, Anthology, Inc., to head it all up.

So what makes poetry slams worth your shelving Tennyson? Think Eminem in 8 Mile, but with less anger and more humor. "Poetry slam has really become a very performance-focused event," Nelson says. The idea is for poets to read their own work without props in front of a sometimes unforgiving audience. Five judges, selected from the evening's crowd, are armed with paddles that have movable numbers on one side and a sticker that reads "Because Poetry Doesn't Have to Suck" on the other.

Tonight there's a big crowd for the 10th-anniversary celebration, so after the first of three rounds, Kevin Patterson, the master of ceremonies, has to cut the lower-scoring participants. He kicks off the night with his own poem and, when finished, shouts to the judges, "Speed over accuracy!" He had three minutes to impress them; they have three seconds to judge him. As he reels off the numbers to the scorekeeper, the ebullient crowd cheers and boos. It's a raw experience, rather like being in the pit of Shakespeare's Globe or in a mosh pit -- or maybe a little bit of both.

Other poets follow. There's Akua, who speaks so melodically, it takes a moment to realize her message isn't a happy one. The Klute, a regular slammer, whirls around the cafe in a black trench coat and screams out his lines in a theatrical frenzy. Patrick Hare's booming elocution requires no gestures. And then there's Nelson himself, reeling off politically charged verses that keep you thinking long after he's left the stage.

Anyone can have a go at it. Just sign up on the evening's talent list, and wait for your moment of reckoning. "Obviously it's not intended to be a serious competition," Nelson says. "We take it pretty lightly. We try to be very encouraging." Or they'll pummel you into the ground. But hey -- that's the beauty of art for the masses.