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Big Tree Arts: Poetry slams offer outreach and an outlet

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Last month, Boise Weekly ran a story about a local business owner who was hiring graffiti artists to decorate his restaurants. While many might argue about whether or not graffiti is art, it brings to light the questions of not only 'what is art' but who decides what is art? Is it art academics or the working artists?

Isaac Grambo is involved in both of those worlds. In his day job, he teaches Art and Communication at Boise State. But at night he is the event coordinator for the slam poetry organization Big Tree Arts.

Slam poetry has endured many of the same battles over legitimacy that graffiti artists go through to define their art form.

"I hear a lot of people lamenting the divide between page poetry and performance poetry. Academic poets distance themselves from this popular medium, and being an art professor I can kind of liken that to other things," Grambo said. "I was just talking today about pottery with my Art 100 class, and I was talking about how academic artists think pottery has a use value and is therefore craft, and therefore is not high art. But whatever, it is making beautiful objects."

Founded in 2002 by Jeanne Huff and Bob Neal as Boise Poetry Slam, the group was later renamed Big Tree Arts as a non-profit, run by Huff, Neal and Cheryl Maddalena. The organization has one goal in mind, according to Maddalena: "creating a stable foundation for the art form of performance poetry in Idaho."

Slam poetry is a competition performance event that was started in 1986 in Chicago by a construction worker tired of the lack of time limits associated with open mic nights. Slam poetry has few rules: participants have a three-minute time limit and may not use costumes, props or musical accompaniment.

According to Conor Harris, a recent addition to Big Tree Arts, the organization makes it easy to perform.

"At the art gallery ... anybody can sign up, and it's a very open and inclusive environment. The regular poets, and the MC and Isaac, are quite frankly bonkers. And I love it. They are nutty and witty and not afraid to include anybody in it."

Performers may interpret poetry however they choose.

"It might be great work on the page written as a part of an MFA's thesis," Maddalena said. "It might be scrawled on the back of a menu by a teenager. It could be a song sung a cappella. It's all 'slam poetry.' It's the lack of limitations on the form that make it so awesome and also so variable."

Poetry is definitely considered an art form, but some people may disagree that the sub-genre of slam poetry is art as well.

"The argument about poetry has come up," Grambo said. "One audience member once said, 'I sure heard a lot of spoken word but not a lot of poetry.' But this is performance poetry, and what is poetry? What is art? Who cares? This is a venue for people to speak and perform their original whatever. While there are some parameters, anything goes."

"As for the poems themselves, and the definition of a slam poem, it's really kind of up to you," Harris said. "I consider a poem to be an artistic expression of one's feelings. I'm a runner, and when I run a great workout and think of the girl I have a crush on the whole time, I'd consider that workout a love poem."

While the group is funded by a few donations, its budget is mostly made up of grants, including one from Idaho Commission on the Arts. Big Tree Arts' youth outreach program is funded thanks to such grants.

There has been some controversy, however, surrounding government paying for arts. KBOI-TV did a story on the issue in January, with one source using Big Tree Arts as an example of why arts should not receive state funding.

"You can have the stance of government shouldn't pay for arts. However if the government doesn't do it, what happens?" Grambo said. "If we don't get the $3,000 that helps make it possible to send two poets to these at-risk students to help them with that sort of stuff, then they don't have that outlet. Then culture starts to sort of dwindle. We don't have money to bring in featured poets. The interest in slam in Boise starts to wane. And then slam stops. And one of the things I like about Boise is that there is a pretty thriving arts culture--in music, in visual arts, in poetry slam--and people are active in it. And people would like to continue that, but you need money to do it."

Big Tree Arts has two regular events each month: one all-ages event at Woman of Steel Gallery every first Tuesday of the month, and another over-21 event at Neurolux every third Monday of the month. EJ Pettinger, Neurolux general manager, sees a mixed audience.

"There are some of our regulars in that mix, but there's also a lot of people we don't see everyday."

That mix has been more beneficial than Big Tree Arts originally imagined.

"Neurolux has been fantastic because people are going to go to Neurolux anyway, not just to go to a poetry show. It has been a way to at least introduce people [to slam poetry]," Grambo said.

As for the all-ages show, it's a way not only to allow anyone to perform, but also to provide youth outreach, an important part of the organization.

"Younger people have a lot of emotions and want to say things, and you give them some sort of avenue to do that," Grambo said.

Maddalena agrees.

"Being able to support our all-ages workshops and youth outreach events with local poets is a huge milestone for us, as this kind of work also helps our local poets to continue to critique and analyze their own work in increasingly effective ways, and thus buoys our whole creative community to ever-higher levels of performance."