Slam poetry is poetry that is meant to be performed. It’s usually shorter than traditional, page poetry because most slams only allow the poet 3 minutes to recite their work. But within those 3 minutes is the power to move an audience to its feet – tears, clogged throats, and lots of enthusiastic finger-snapping. The same goes for the slam poetry at the Jersey City Poetry Slam.
Walk into the Tea NJ cafe in Jersey City, and twice a month you’ll find the small cafe packed with slam poets and poetry enthusiasts. This is a boisterous bunch. They’re loud, vocal, and full of passion. Most nights you’ll find Mark Skrypczak, a tall, quiet figure, seated at a table against the wall tallying up the scores for each poet.
Mark’s been running the Jersey City Poetry Slam for almost six years. And since then, the JC Slam has evolved from a twice-monthly event with hardly anyone showing up, to a nationally-known group that packs the Tea NJ cafe every other Thursday night, sending its slam poets to national competitions around the country.
I caught up with Mark at the end of the last poetry slam. The cafe was closing – they stay open late twice a month for the JC Slam – so we went outside and found a bench and spent an hour talking about slam poetry.
How is it being slam-master?
It’s a very rewarding experience. Some people look at it as work. I really don’t look at it as work. I mean there’s things I have to do to make it work, like organization and all that. But I enjoy it so much it doesn’t feel like work.
I love to perform. I’ve taken a real long break from actually being a straight performer, I’ve been a full-time slam-master and coach. I used to coach at Rutgers and I’ve been coaching here the last couple years. I’d like to get back into slamming, I’ve been putting my toes in there, but it’s just sometimes different things going on. Like right now life outside the slam is kind of crazy. I don’t have the time to do the poems right now, but to keep the slam running, I have time to do that.
It gets to a point where it’s like, you can present a schedule and offer them a space and do all of the paperwork nobody wants to do, or even most people don’t know goes on. There’s meetings I go to and forms I need to keep track of, and it’s just stuff to run the slam basically. Most people don’t even know what I do behind the scenes. I can come up with a schedule, be here most nights we have a slam or an event, I have a good rapport with the owner, but at the same I run all the social media. So it gets to a point where that’s all I can do. People are coming, that’s great, but there’s so much more that you want to see done.
To become PSI-certified you need to have a venue, you need to prove that you have an audience – it’s pictures, flyers, sign-up sheets. I use the Instagram pretty much as a form of saying the slam goes on. People don’t even know that.
What’s been the best part of being a slam-master?
I lot of people have told me that being a slam-master is a thankless job, and I haven’t really seen that here. I don’t know if it’s the community or if I’m doing something right. Sometimes people are like, Ughhh, I gotta run the slam – they complain, say there’s no joy in it. I think I’ve found more joy in it. I think sometimes you fall into positions you need to do. I was a slammer, I was a very competitive slammer. I competed at Nationals, I was on final stage for the national Haiku slam – I’ve done a lot. Part of me is getting the bug to go back and try it again, but to give other people a chance to do it….
Like for instance, you look at somebody like R____ – that’s a person who needs to be heard. That’s a poet that’s really hungry. He’s only been to one nationals, and that first year everything was so new to him he actually got better when he came back. It wasn’t the preparation that made him good, it was coming home and realizing what he had to do to be great. And I really hope there’s a chance we can get someone like him back at that stage because this is somebody that has a lot to say.
You used to coach at Rutgers. How did you get into coaching?
Coaching kind of fell in my lap. I found out that the first time they (Rutgers Slam Poetry Team) competed in the CUPSI Invitational, I heard they had a coach and the coach didn’t come to practice and couldn’t coach them at the tournament itself. I felt really bad for them, and I told them, if you need any help let me know. And the first year I coached they called me two weeks before the tournament, and were like, we need your help. They needed a lot of help, and I was able to get off of work to go coach them. And yeah, it just kind of fell in lap, and they then were like, Well what if you’re here the whole year? So I did two years of it and came into position of taking over this slam (Jersey City Poetry Slam), and that was because this slam was going through a lot of turmoil, a lot of changes, and I was one of the more consistent figures that’s been around the whole time.
What’s you coaching method like?
It all depends on your team. With the college team it’s basically taking their poems, and taking a red pen, and covering their paper with red ink. You need to explain to me this, this this, and they come back with a poem that looks similar to what they handed you before, and then you have to explain it to them again, and then you’re like, well you need to go out and practice and try this out on different audiences and they don’t do it. So you have to force them to perform in front of an audience. There’s times where it’s like I’m going to make you stand on the New Brunswick train platform and perform.
But with the Jersey City team I don’t have to go to those extremes.
We had one poet, Theron Jenkins, and he made our team but he hadn’t written any new poems in almost two years. And he had this idea for a poem but he kept saying like, It’s no good, it’s no good, I feel like I don’t have anything good. With his poem it was just taking the steps and telling him this is a good poem, you need to work on it. It’s more of like it was just the encouragement to get him to finish it. It ended up being one of the best poems that was at Nationals this past year. He got a perfect score. It was him being painstakingly perfect. Just before we left it was ready, just the night before.
What’s been your best memory of being a slam-master?
It was at nationals this year. I told Theron, I feel like you’re the game-changer of this group. That your work is the work that stands out – I’m not saying he was better than everyone, but that his work stands out the most. It turned out that I was right when he went up there and got the perfect score and there’s a stupid video of me jumping around like a fool. It’s just that moment when you realize that he got the perfect score. I was jumping around like a fool. My face was in shock and I was just jumping around.