A Poem should curve
like the bell of a tulip
or a pistol grip
—haiku by Renegade
On a blast-furnace Thursday in early August, a mass of buppies and bohemians is packed inside State of the Union, the charismatic dive on the U Street corridor. The crowd is an amusing blend of the style elite and fashion offenders. The occasional nicotine ringlet drifts lazily through this ensemble of post-collegiate Cosby kids, and a nondescript band is riffing out tune after nondescript tune and being ignored by all. It’s a fitting backdrop for Washington’s first known “anti-slam,” a gimmicky counterpoint to the trendy poetry slams that have sprung up nationally, like the literary equivalent of Starbucks. While a competitive ethic drives the poetry slams, tonight’s event is a fundraiser for a battered-women’s shelter, so the long knives remain sheathed. The stage is bathed in amber house-lighting and in front of a battered portrait of Rasputin poets take turns slinging similes over the band’s out-of-sync accompaniment.
Somewhere amid this orgy of oration, a trim 6-foot-4 poet, wearing all black, slides up to the stage and gains the crowd’s attention if for no other reason than the fact that he cancels out the unfunky foursome and recites his poem a cappella. On his T-shirt is a white silhouette, its head facing down, right hand clenched, black power–style, throwing a jab at infinity. He leans in, arms draped languidly over the mike stand. He flashes a split-second smile that reveals a front tooth as absent as a high-school delinquent, then, peering over black, Malcolm X–frame glasses, he begins. The first words boom over static and chatter:
You’ll stand at the kitchen counter
raise the steaming pot like a question
pour the boiling coffee
into your fragile cup
close your eyes & whisper not my boy
DJ Renegade has had more than his share of aka’s. The first was the one his mother gave him—Joel Dias-Porter. It’s good he lost the tag. He does not look like a Joel. He looks every inch a Renegade: visage punched up by a missing front, overworn shorts, and stubble aspiring to become a beard. He is the ex-homeless, ex-DJ, coulda-been-top-dog-on-the-slam-poetry-food-chain who is now lying in wait for a chance to artistically make good. His percussive, hiphop-influenced style of poetry, his vast body of knowledge, his trenchant wit, and his penchant for starting arguments have made him a hard-to-miss fixture in Washington’s burgeoning literary community. The poem titled “Stuck in the Bottom of the Cup” chronicles the endlessly familiar Washington scenario of mother burying son. The audience is less than attentive. Sensing a dis in the air, his eyebrows begin to hover over his eyes like angry storm clouds; he tries to drown out the interference by reading louder. Somewhere between the nerve-grating background noise and the scratchy sound system, Renegade manages to find a place to stand and speak his piece, which ends:
But although you might not know
what day of the week it is
you’ll know that three times
in the back of the head
ain’t nobody’s accident
and you’ll sip your coffee black.
The crowd stirs from its self-absorbed chatter long enough to break into applause, but the poet is disappointed. He steps down from the stage, talks momentarily with Eric Antonio, the ponytailed promoter of the event, and then weaves through the forest of bodies toward the front door. Outside, he runs through a litany of grievances from the anti-band on stage to the talkative crowd. Besides a plain-old artistic temperament, he has other concerns fueling his irritability. In a few short weeks, he’ll be competing in the National Poetry Slam championships in Portland, Ore. A freak (albeit poetic) accident in last year’s tournament left him with the dubious distinction of being the only person to win and lose the national championship within the space of three minutes.
The National Poetry Slam is a holy grail among the legions of performance poets around the country. For the promise of recognition, fun, and 500 bucks, poets are willing to shed their image as inward, dreamy souls and engage in full-contact competition. In the peculiar world of competitive poetry, one’s fate may hang on something as simple as an inflection or a scripted pause. Last-minute readings like tonight’s are a chance to work out kinks in pieces, hone rhythm and cadence, and refine the nuances that can make the difference between winning…and getting your ass kicked.
Renegade was hoping to get his stuff nice and tight at the Union, hence the sidewalk editorial about what went wrong, and then he’s off, loping pensively down U Street, journalist in tow. Pushing past a row of neatly dressed Nation of Islam members busily hawking the Final Call, he expounds on his ideas on poetry and randomly bounds to the other three dozen areas in which he holds seemingly irrefutable opinions.
One of the bow-tied salesmen pitches the paper to him and Renegade decides to reject the path of least resistance, a simple “no thank you.” Instead, he shoots back at the startled brother: “I’m not buying the Final Call ’til Farrakhan takes back what he said about the Sudan.” The issue at hand is whether or not the minister was aware of slavery in the Sudan before visiting the country during his post–Million Man March world tour.
The salesman glances at him quizzically before launching a futile attempt to defend his boss. “Farrakhan,” he opines, “is the only brother trying to unite black people here with black people in Africa.”
“You ever hear of Randall Robinson?” Renegade fires back. The Farrakhanite answers no. “Then the discussion is over,” he states summarily.
In the span of a five-minute debate, Renegade has assaulted the guy with a footnoted avalanche of hard-to-come-by facts about the Nation of Islam, the Sudan, Nigeria, and the minister himself. The feat might be noteworthy were it not for the fact that this type of thing seems to happen around Renegade about once every seven minutes. I have trouble deciding whether this is a case of intellectual passion or pedantic bludgeoning, and decide that it’s probably both. On those rare occasions when an encyclopedic frame of reference doesn’t win an argument, Renegade just keeps debating until the other person quits. He disagrees ad infinitum, lays logical booby traps, and dissects the subtlest semantic distinctions until a sane person would conclude that winning the discussion later would be less pleasurable than ending it right now. Renegade’s version of Descartes reads, “I argue, therefore I am.”
At first glance, Renegade seems an odd favorite for the coveted crown in pop lit. He towers over most of his colleagues, while his lean frame and size 17D sneakers make him seem more like a power forward than a scribe. He can be a fairly intimidating package. A white woman who steps off the escalator at the U Street Metro gets a load of an advancing Renegade and practically pirouettes to get away from him. My guess is that “poet” wasn’t the first word that flashed through her mind. Appearance notwithstanding, he has more than the requisite eccentricities of his craft. In a racket full to the brim with goofballs, Renegade has a franchise on idiosyncrasy. Take the fact that he wears black everyday, or that he once quit his job for two years to become a nonstop scholar and routinely spent up to 10 hours a day reading literature, science, and history in the Library of Congress. He never leaves the house without a deck of cards, shuffles them compulsively, and stops only long enough to perform the occasional card trick. He stores the sandwich he made for lunch in the front pocket of his jeans; he sleeps on a pallet of blankets next to his bed. Even for somebody who spends a lot of time in coffee houses, Renegade is anomalous in the extreme.
Set against the current backdrop of poetic pimpdom, Renegade’s quirks—not to mention his stellar verses—lend him an air of authenticity in a culture that has had its head turned by words. Poetry has moved once again from the margins to the center of pop life, and now dreadlocked wannabes mouth inanities in sappy McDonald’s commercials while MTV airs 30-second poetry snippets. At least three spoken-word albums are scheduled for release next year, and a new generation of poets is touring through coffee houses like neo-bluesmen working a literary chitlin circuit.
Poetry—at least the loud, visible version of it—came out of the library about a decade ago. Promoter Marc Smith is credited with the idea of organizing poetry readings into “slams” a decade ago at a Chicago spot called the Get Me High Club. Traditionally, a slam consists of three rounds, with judges selected randomly from the audience. Each poet receives Olympic-style scores, with the highest and lowest scores being thrown out. On the local level, a slam winner may net a cool 10 bucks, but at the nationals the stakes are considerably higher. Winners take home half-a-G and all the profits they can rake in from selling chapbooks. Against stiff competition, Renegade has proved himself a slammist extraordinaire, part of the rhyme elite that gathers annually to determine the best among them. His is a sui generis talent—not canned coffee house theatrics. This is not a game to Renegade.
Beyond the loot involved, the prestige associated with the title can open the doors to national recognition and a steady stream of performances. Gayle Danley, the ’94 slam champion, parlayed the title into a chance to travel around the country performing her work. “It can take you as far as you want,” she remarks, “especially if you have something to sell.” Danley began teaching poetry workshops professionally after she gained the title.
Since 1987, however, the championship has virtually been on a long-term lease to Patricia Smith, a columnist for the Boston Globe and four-time champion. Danley won the one year Smith didn’t compete, but otherwise, “La Machine,” as Smith has been poetically dubbed, has seemed virtually unbeatable. That is, until last year, when Renegade—in a move that seems torn from the pages of a blues musician’s autobiography—managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The 1995 National Poetry Slam was held from Aug. 9-12 in Ann Arbor, Mich. Over the course of three days, 27 teams (about 130 poets overall) hummed, hymned, and haikued their larynxes raw in hopes of winning the national title. A poet with particularly high scores can qualify for the individual finals even if his or her team is eliminated from competition. The D.C. team was composed of Jeff McDaniel, Jose Padua, Kenneth Carroll, and Renegade.
McDaniel and Renegade clashed over the order in which the team members would read—a crucial issue, since scores tend to get higher as readings go on. All things being equal, or at least as equal as the fickle art of judging poetry can be, the third and fourth poets on a team will score better than the two leadoff writers. Ultimately, Renegade wound up with the coveted third spot.
The first round pitted the Washington team against Cleveland and Phoenix. Cleveland used a diversionary strategy—reminiscent of the recent Republican convention—that involved using group poems to camouflage the team’s weak individual links, and squeaked out a victory in Round 1. Washington was effectively eliminated, but Renegade made the finals on the strength of a poem about Miles Davis titled “Subterranean Night-Colored Magi.” He rhapsodized:
Miles deep like a mine shaft
decrescendoing to the motherlode
a blue breeze blowing undersongs
His verse piled up points that assured him a shot at the individual title.
“Hangin’ with him got weird [after that], because he became obsessive,” Carroll remembers. “He was like an athlete who was completely focused on how to get the best score. He sat at breakfast, ignoring food because he was going over poems, and completely stopped talking. After a while, I got tired of being around his ass.”
The individual championship was held on the last day of competition. The ’95 championships differed from previous years’ in that poets would suffer specific penalties for going over their allotted three minutes. Otherwise, the scoring was as it had been: Poems are given scores ranging from 1 to 10 by a panel of five judges. The high score and the low score are thrown out and the remaining three scores are added together. The four finalists were Smith, Renegade, Boogie—another 6-foot-4-inch poet who featured black-nationalist cant in his rhymes—and a guy named Wammo!, from Arkansas. While the team preliminaries had been held at a series of local cafes, the finals managed to fill the 3,000-seat Michigan Theater. The poets drew for slots that determined the order of the reading. Boogie read a brimstone, kill-whitey poem that scored surprisingly well considering that the room was filled with white people. After the first of the finals’ two rounds, Renegade was in first, with Smith, Wammo!, and Boogie following, in that order. With Renegade in the lead, the aura of invincibility surrounding La Machine Smith was at least slightly diminished. “By the time Renegade read, everyone realized he was about to win,” Carroll notes. With Smith’s score at 29.2, Renegade needed only a 29.2 in the second round to win the national championship.
Renegade launched into the poem, which was actually a neatly strung-together series of short poems—seven of them. The audience erupted when he finished the set. Several pregnant moments later, the scores were read. His 29.2 made him the first man ever to win a slam. Somewhere amid all the hysteria, the judges announced that there was a one-point deduction for going overtime. The seventh poem had stretched 28 seconds too long. There was a 10-second grace period, but he was penalized for the remaining 18 seconds of verbiage. The deduction knocked him from first to fourth place.
It was the epitome of a man’s reach exceeding his grasp. Came close but went too long. Eighteen seconds of surplus, 9.5 percent too much poetry. In the end, his performance looked like a perfectly spiraling football that arches over the field and keeps going—straight past the end zone.
It was the first time he’d ever gone overtime in a slam. “He was being experimental,” Danley stated in her genial Atlanta twang. “But this is the national championships, and that is not the time to be Thelonius Monk.” Carroll diagnosed the screw-up as part of his friend’s “constant evasion of success.”
Renegade had actually read the series earlier but had added more material, hoping to impress a particular judge. The remainder of the time in Ann Arbor, well-wishing attendees slapped Renegade on the back and mumbling platitudes like, “Hey man, you really won.” But he didn’t. Several hundred dollars and a large trophy in Smith’s possession slightly contradicted that assessment. In the 374 days that separated last year’s competition from the 1996 championships, the memory of near-victory fermented and stayed with Renegade like an in-law’s Christmas fruitcake.
A wise man will build
the walls of a house with all
the stones thrown at him
In an era when anyone who’s good at Jeopardy seems destined for an Ivy League post and l5 minutes at the podium as the public intellectual of the moment, Renegade defies the pigeonhole. Equal parts guerrilla scholar and neighborhood smartass, Renegade was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., 33 years ago and grew up in the city’s St. Clair Village housing project.
Renegade’s father, Joel Herman Porter, was a native of Pittsburgh who worked for the Pittsburgh Housing Authority. His mother, Anna Dias, is Cape Verdian and migrated to the city in the late 1950s from Massachusetts—where the majority of Cape Verdians in the United States still reside. Large numbers of them, including Renegade’s forebears—migrated from the archipelago to New England. They were lured by the prospect of work in the whaling industry, but many wound up working as pickers in damp cranberry bogs—the Northern equivalent of a cotton field. The most famous among them was a huckster clergyman by the name of Marcelino Manoel Da Graca, better known to the world as Sweet, Precious Daddy Grace, founder of the megalithic United House of Prayer for All People.
Early on, Anna Porter made sure her children knew about the world beyond the confines of their sprawling, metropolislike housing project. “I started reading to him when he was 6 months old,” she recalls. “We got magazines delivered—even though we were kind of poor—and as soon as he could read, I took him to get a library card.”
On weekends, Dias would take her two children wandering through the area’s museums and historic sites. Joel was something of a juvenile info addict and would spend hours lost in whatever book he was reading. At 10 years old, he wrote a poem, his first, for a family friend whose husband had been murdered.
By any measure, Joel Dias-Porter was “gifted,” the type of kid who, in the airbrushed version of reality sold by politicians, was destined to overcome the ghetto and live out a grand Horatio Alger fantasy. But as George Clinton pointed out, America eats its young, a truth made all the more real if you’re young, gifted, black, and poor. Dias-Porter was born into a vortex of muted aspirations, a world shaped by black people who had been lured to the industrial promise of Pittsburgh from all parts of the South only to find empty asphalt and hard times.
Projects like St. Clair Village are storehouses of human potential, places where people accumulate years like scar tissue. Living there, you catch the early lessons of boulevard sociology, which teaches that all talk about a land of opportunity is bullshit, and you bank on the deferred hope of transcending circumstance through luck, determination, and a shoplifted Ivy League vocab. If you are smart—and the projects are full of genius in abeyance—you either make it big or fall off in a major way. Dias-Porter came up in a landscape where potential can become a synonym for waste. Take, for instance, Mark Hyman, a ghetto savant and St. Clair Village resident who was similarly “gifted.” He converted to Islam at the ripe age of 14 and taught himself to read Arabic. Senior year witnessed his conversion to apostate Muslim, perpetually laced on whatever get-high was available. Or any of the legendary cast of characters that inhabited my own south Queens terrain, whose dreams shone brightly for a New York minute and then faded like bleached denim.
Renegade decided not to be another genius coulda-been, but his muse would, nonetheless, remain in suspended animation for nearly two decades. He says he “spent the first 29 years of my life trying to avoid being a poet.”
That evasion was made significantly more difficult in 1979 when the hiphop ur-jam “Rapper’s Delight” was released. The single remapped the course of black music and along the way hooked the scrawny bibliophile on its breakbeats and syncopated poetry. Like many black writers of his generation, Renegade’s interest in poetry was an extension of his addiction to hiphop.
Rapper grips mic tight
drums explode in
lyrics leap from lips
The long, circuitous journey to performance poetry might have started when Renegade mustered up the nerve to perform a rap at a high-school talent show. Adopting the cryptic tag of Six-Nine Dr. Onionstein (eventually changing his name to Jazzy Jay), he set out to master his craft, ripping mikes at every house party that would give him a shot. He loved the life, but since A&R men weren’t beating a path to the projects, and cash for college was nil, Renegade entered the Air Force after high school and became a computer operator. After bouncing from bases in Biloxi, Miss., and Spokane, Wash., he was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base.
Around that time he started borrowing records and DJing parties on and around the base. His tenure at Andrews was cut short when he was ejected from the Air Force for insubordination in 1983. With armed forces career over, he decided to try his hand at DJing professionally. “I had started spinning records in Pittsburgh ’cause I couldn’t dance. I was usually the only motherfucker who knew how to work the stereos…so after I got kicked out, I was doing a lot of club dates.”
“I decided I didn’t want to work, I just wanted to spin records. So I did the whole starving artist thing.” Starvation eventually paid off in the form of a gig as the Saturday-night DJ at the Eastside. “It was the perfect job,” he recalls. “They paid me what I wanted, there was no restrictions on what I could play, and the owner didn’t know anything about black music, so there could be no comments.”
DJ Jazzy was put down in favor of a new tag after an employer called him a renegade and fired him. The Eastside job lasted for five years, during which he became, in his estimation, “the second-best-known DJ in the city, after DJ Kool.” His rep was a product of his skill and the monster publicity machine the Eastside had established. The constellation of characters that passed through the Eastside was like a surreal music-video shoot: Overgolded hustlers and their sycophant sidemen, would-be smooth operators, and a host of other flamboyants.
DJ Kool and Renegade struck up a friendship, and one day Renegade inadvertently passed Kool a note with a poem scribbled on the back. “Kool flipped. He was adamant about using it as a song. I pointed out that it wasn’t a rap, and he said he didn’t care, he wanted it on his album,” says Renegade.
That was 10 years ago, making Kool probably the first rapper to start using spoken-word verse in his music. “Pressed Against the Glass” became a local hit, and while it didn’t immediately inspire more poetry, the fact that people identified with Renegade’s words made an impression that stayed with him.
“Before that, poetry had always been some personal shit that I wrote and didn’t show to anybody.”
By 1989, rap had been permeated by the groundswell of Afrocentrism. Rage prophets Public Enemy were trafficking their trademark “Up you mighty race” polemics, and nationalist zealots like X-Clan funneled colorfully pro-black arcana into their lyrics. Molefi Asante’s book Afrocentricity went crossover, from the ivory tower to the street where Renegade picked it up. The book, the times, and his own trip came together in a racial epiphany—Renegade plunged headlong into Afrocentric literature.
“I realized at a certain point that I knew far more about European culture and history than I did about Africa,” he explains. He compiled a list of 100 essential books and started knocking off classics like African Origins of Civilization and They Came Before Columbus in the afternoons before hitting the Eastside to spin records. He also began working with the Malcolm X Day committee as a volunteer, and at one of its functions he saw his future teammate Carroll perform a poem and decided that performance poetry was what he wanted to do. It was that simple. Backstage he buttonholed Carroll, crammed poems into his hand, and asked for on-the-spot feedback. That same year he wrote a poem that was performed at the D.C. Malcolm X Day celebration.
The DJ scene’s grip on Renegade’s imagination loosened, and he slipped out of the Eastside’s orbit. “I had to ask DJ Flex what the hot cuts were—when I first started, Flex was coming to me for the newest shit.” Renegade sold his records to Flex for $1,500, hit the lottery for $1,000, and made plans to use the cash and his savings to pay his living expenses while reading for a year.
“If I did nothing but read, I could average a book every three days and read the whole list in a year.” He came late to his own history, but it became an all-consuming quest, a vacuum that he would not allow to go unfilled. His obsessive unearthing of roots drove him to rifle through just about every major repository of books in the area. “I would get to the Library of Congress right after it opened and wouldn’t stop reading until they were turning off the lights,” Renegade recalls.
The life of scholar-on-the-cheap might have worked, but the household he was part of disintegrated. He became a literary gypsy, dragging his books around as he made his way through a circuit of friends’ couches. When he’d sufficiently worn out his welcome, he started sleeping on park benches and eventually landed at the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) in 1993, a decade after he’d first come to the city. He crashed at the shelter night after night, and devoted all his daylight hours to tearing meticulously through the remaining books on the list.
Life in the shelter became a practicum in the sociology of the mad, the off-center, and the buck-wild. Renegade wrote schizophrenia-tinged poems using letters from his schizophrenic cohorts as models, played chess with slightly twisted men, and talked psychology with a recovering pimp. In short, Renegade formed his own grad school, a space in which he could explore advanced studies in his own curriculum. He decided to spend a second year in the shelter when he realized that he couldn’t work a job and devote his attention exclusively to writing poetry. Not that there is any love lost between Renegade and what we conventionally think of as employment. His nonliterary vocational history could be measured with a stopwatch.
While living in the shelter, Renegade compiled his poems into a chapbook titled Slumsong: The Art of Drumming. The poems were, in his word, “juvenalia,” but there was a glint of promise beneath the rough-edged verses; a gifted writer was beginning to emerge. An entry in the annual Larry Neal competition at the end of his first year in the shelter garnered him an honorable mention. Before he left CCNV he’d won grants from George Washington University’s Jenny McKean Moore writer’s fund, designed and taught a course titled “From Rappin’ to Writin’” at Ballou High School, and performed a poem in a Legal Jeans television commercial. Along the way Renegade had established himself as a slammer extraordinaire and become a totem of the local writing scene. Over the course of the next two years, he fairly shredded Slumsong, the surviving remnants becoming the nucleus for the independently published 4,000 Shades of Blue, which sold a respectable 450 copies. His objective is ultimately to live by his pen, a goal that the grail in Portland—a national championship—might go a long way toward realizing.
Four days before the competition, and Renegade is seated with his arms draped over a table in the D.C. Arts Commission office, swathed in one of his multitude of black T-shirts. An abandoned deck of cards sits dejectedly in front of him, the familiar glasses are slouching on his face, and his expression is pensive. He and fellow slam competitor Danley are conducting a workshop on writing effective poetry.
They will be competing against each other for the national championship, but there is not a hint of competitive tension between them. Danley alternately spins verses, issues critiques, and ministers to her insistent 10-month-old daughter. Renegade pauses and scribbles, then pauses again. The poets, students and teachers, are prodded into introspection and asked to cull a particularly vivid memory to construct a poem—the majority of the writers wind up airing sharp, painful reminiscences. Renegade is no exception; he breaks his silence and reads “Smile,” a poem about the loss of his front tooth.
on my way home from school
running up the sliding board
slipping reaching for railing
missing it over the side
falling hitting the ground teeth first
blood drips off my chin
the wind like a sliver of glass in my gums
The words chalk up serious hang time before something speaks and the class begins to dissect the poem line by line to see into its effectiveness. (Renegade explains that the tooth was actually done in by a series of mishaps including being hit with a bat twice, “once by accident.”) Though the poem is well received, it will doubtless undergo a half-dozen edits before Renegade considers it completed. He has, nonetheless, honed his skill to the point where constructing a promising poem can be done within the 10-minute time span of the workshop exercise. The feat is a far cry from his fledgling literary attempts at CCNV.
When a workshop attendee asks about his influences, Renegade drops a quote he copped from some unremembered source.
“Don’t ask me about influences. A lion is made up of all the lambs it’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life,” he says.
Renegade’s literary heroes change often, begetting a sprawling reading list with a steady stream of lambs to be digested. Currently, he concedes to Yusef Komunyakaa, Robert Hayden, and the iconoclastic bard Amiri Baraka as staples. Like Baraka, Renegade’s work is steeped in black history and musical references. But like many great poets, the topic of love rents space in his work and his heart—his unrequited love poems fill an entire section of 4,000 Shades.
Renegade’s primary literary cover is that of urban troubadour, a muse from the projects who breathes life into street-corner epics from St. Clair Village and the Eastside like so many dry bones in the valley. He spins tales of life in the city that are as real as bad luck and as dark as burned asphalt; sharp like the sound of dice colliding with pavement and eloquent like a Corinthian scripture. The two poems he reads to the workshop class bear out that eloquence. “Wade in the Water” scripts the everyday menace of inner-city police brutality:
He’s behind you
his boot between your nikes
And as you’re falling there’s
a sense of uncertainty about
when and where you’ll land.
But there’s something bout
that taste in your mouth
Asphalt, blood and saliva
it’s a Ghetto Cocktail.
Didn’t you know?
Traffic tickets can only be issued
to Black men in a
And no matter
how bad one may be
there’s something bout
being held on the ground
at gunpoint that’s unnerving
Drama, suspense, terror
it’s Ghetto Theatre.
I’d rather be mugged by a thug
than stopped by a cop.
Cuz no matter how much
you might try to ignore it
there’s something bout
from the speaking end
of a Police revolver
Rite, ritual, ceremony
it’s a Ghetto Baptism.
His noir signature poem, “Big Andre,” had its genesis in an experience at the Eastside. A big-time hustler offered him $50 to play a particular record—one that Renegade didn’t have with him. Holding to the obscure practice of DJs never to admit it when you don’t have a record, he simply refused to play it. Bad move. “See, I figured out that you never reject a hustler’s money. It’s the ultimate insult, because that’s where they draw their esteem, so it’s like rejecting them as a person.” The hustler responded by throwing the crumpled bill at him and informing him that if he didn’t play the song, he would find himself very shot up. Renegade spent several extremely tense minutes in the DJ booth before discovering that the hustler had found the curves of a female patron more seductive than the chance to commit a senseless homicide.
Poems like “Smile” are a change for Renegade, since the vast majority of his body of work is concerned with the world around him, not his own life. “He still has some personal terrain to cover,” Carroll notes. “For instance, he doesn’t have any poems about living in the shelter.” When the workshop ends, Renegade leaves the building, grabs a quick meal, and devotes the rest of the evening and the entire next day to perfecting the minutiae of his upcoming, timed-to-the-second performance.
The individual championships in Portland have been staggered and will stretch from Aug. 21-23. Renegade and Danley decide to blow into town a day early to settle in and prepare. Amid the pre-slam film screenings and readings, the two register and drift off toward their housing—in Renegade’s case, a stay with an obsessively vegetarian couple who shoot malicious glances at him every time he mentions red meat.
COUPLE: We don’t eat meat; we love animals.
RENEGADE: I love animals, too, especially the way they taste.
Back at the OK Corral, Renegade’s matchups have almost given him an express track to the finals. Danley has drawn a tougher route to the winner’s platform, but she, along with Renegade, Smith, and Taylor Mali, is given nods by the smart money.
Day 1: The teams from Vancouver, B.C., Winston-Salem, N.C., and Monterey Bay, Calif., slug it out in an inelegant, low-scoring bout. By the end of the first round, no individual has scored above a 26.7. Renegade steps up and launches into his ode to Miles Davis.
“Some shit just came over me. It was the best that I ever did that poem. It was an order of magnitude better than any other time that I did it.”
Renegade spent the final hours before the competition retooling inflections and adding a fiery, Pentecostal-preacher affect to the last verse, converting the piece from a mere ode to something of a eulogy. He scores a 28.9, which, given the low scores of the night, looms Goliathlike over the other poets. He comes off the stage almost assured of making the finals and gets a reception more fitting for a rock star than a people’s poet (he had been profiled in a Portland alternative paper the day before).
La Machine reads in the round following Renegade’s and places an almost unthinkable fourth. It will be almost impossible to make the finals with such a low number. The slam’s elite corps of four has begun to atrophy, and Smith’s demise makes Renegade the odds-on favorite. “At that point, I knew it was gonna be me or Gayle,” Renegade notes, confident that he can beat any of the other soon-to-be finalists. Danley, Mali, and Wammo! all move easily into the second round.
Day 2: Dismissing the tournament shuttle, Renegade decides to walk 26 blocks to his venue, timing himself and concentrating on his performance. He draws a six, placing him near the end of the lineup—a fortunate position if scores keep to the traditional pattern of rising as competition goes on. Facing stiffer competition from the teams from (interestingly enough) the Ozarks, Athens, Ga., and Los Angeles, Renegade banks on an unproven poem—the same one he had to shout over the crowd at State of the Union—and an old reliable, “Stuck in the Bottom of the Cup,” and garners a respectable 28.1, which is the high score for the round. He switches performance styles for “Big Andre,” splitting the poem into two narrative voices. The new style gets a 28.4—not high enough to win the bout, but enough to ensure a slot in the finals. Danley’s match pits her against a Portland team on its home soil, along with Roanoke, Va., and Monterey Bay, which obliterated its competition the night before. She draws a two and scores a 27.8. She is forced to sweat out the remainder of the round, but makes it into the finals by a hair’s breadth. Both Mali and Wammo! advance as well.
Day 3: Renegade and Danley spend the early part of the day eating breakfast and timing poems. Based on his phenomenal score the first night, Renegade opts to read the Miles Davis elegy, “Subterranean Night-Colored Magi.” “It had gotten the highest score and the highest reaction from people,” he says. The reworked poem comes in long, three minutes and 16 seconds, which isn’t going to get it—the poem has to come in under three minutes if he wants any shot at the title. The judges give up 10 seconds of grace, but after that they start mercilessly hacking off points. Renegade stops, brow furrowed, and runs through the piece again. Identical: 3:16. He starts reworking the poem, verse by verse, splicing syllables, condensing enunciation, and generally reading the poem faster. In order for the poem to work he has to get out of each of the three stanzas in one minute or less. Ten minutes later it comes in twice at 2:50. He exhales and begins cramming papers into an overstuffed bookbag before leaving the table.
He times the poem again on his way to the competition: 2:55.
Renegade has just arrived at the Intermediate Theater when Jeff Myers, the “slam master,” pulls him aside. There has been a mistake, and Danley actually hasn’t qualified for the finals. Renegade recalculates every score on the sheet himself before he pulls her backstage and tells her. “She handled it with a lot of class. She called her mother and cried, but she didn’t let anybody see her crying,” he says. Smith walks in after Danley’s removal. “[They] have always had this serious competitive thing, but now nothing was as stake, and [Smith] came over and told her she was sorry that she had been removed,” Renegade says. He consoles Danley for a minute and then heads back out to the competition.
Of the four favored poets, Mali and Renegade are the only two within range of the championship. In the dressing room, Renegade does the poem three times and comes in under 2:55 each time.
The final draws over 1,000 people. The high drama surrounding Renegade—his write-ups in the paper, the loss last year, and his surviving the early demise of the favorites—has churned the room to a fanatic intensity.
“He was clearly the crowd favorite,” Myers notes. The competitors are a mix of slam vets and newcomers to the finals. Renegade will be up against Mali, Wammo!, Patricia Johnson, Evert Eden, and Glenis Scherer.
Renegade reads a compendium poem titled “Mama After Midnight” in the first round, and scores a 29.0. Mali scores a 29.1, but goes over the time limit. Johnson receives a 28.9. At the end of the first round Renegade is a 10th of a point behind Mali but is buoyed by the fact that his second poem is probably stronger than any of the other front-runners’.
His confidence proves well-founded. Mali flounders, going overtime again. Two time penalties slam the coffin-lid on his aspirations, but the upstart Johnson lands an imposing 29.2. Renegade starts talking to himself under his breath. Nailing the Miles poem would erase the endless blues story that started in Ann Arbor.
He steps on stage, pulls the microphone from the stand, and walks toward the back wall. He turns around, gripping the mike like a vice, and starts. For the duration of his performance, people in the crowd yell encouragement, though he hears none of it. Renegade runs through the spliced sections and keeps to the pace that brought the poem in at 2:55 on the bus.
Miles the son of a dentist doing rootwork
with a hoodoo horn hollering bebop toasts
First verse: one minute.
Miles was slick as black ice
cool as black snow
sweet as black cherries
on the downbeat like a blackjack.
Second verse: 58 seconds.
He comes to the final section and transforms himself into the sermonizer.
Miles, 1.6 kliks of cool
5,280 feet doing the East Saint boogie
moody as any monk
he was live and evil
but in a silent way.
The eulogy’s ending was the key to the high score two days before. Renegade preaches the final lines:
The theater explodes, as if a dam has given way, when Renegade finishes. The standing O he gets is the only one of the competition. He walks off the stage, but slowly, basking in every minute of redemption. Moments later they announce his score: 29.3. He has won. Another Patricia—this time the last name is Johnson—has gotten iced in the final. Free at last.
This is all before the bean counters tally up the time. It happens again. Came close, but overtime by 12 seconds. The sermonic ending has stretched syllables and devoured all the time-saving devices in the first two verses. Again, there were 10 seconds of grace, but the two extra seconds—the difference between saying “magiiic” and “magic”—in the last line cost him half a point. The deduction knocked him down to third place, just a slight bit more benevolent than the previous year’s time demons, which had completely yanked him from standing. “It was really heartbreaking to watch,” Myers notes. “His Miles poem just blew everybody in the theater away.”
There is the inevitable tide of people who pat Renegade on the back and mouth platitudes, but it is all a sour echo. And now people mutter dime-store psychoanalysis about Renegade sabotaging himself. “Constantly evading success,” as his friend theorized presciently.
Renegade isn’t buying it. “Both times that I went overtime, it was the best performance of that particular poem that I had ever done.” If he’d wanted to sabotage his performance, he argues, he wouldn’t have bothered to perform so well. His dejected covenant to return next year sounds like a die-hard Cubs fan, pitifully hopeful that the gods will smile upon his team next season. Carroll points out that while Renegade may have a problem with time management, he can clearly write his ass off. “In fact,” Carroll says, “that may be his problem.”
There is a truism in the poetry game that seems to hang closest to Renegade. Bob Holman, something of an unofficial archbishop of slam, has said it before, and now he can say it again:
“The best poet never wins.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michelle Gienow.