Our local poetry and slam scenes in SLC are going through some big changes. We're seeing some prominent names retire, some newer names rise up to be leaders, and a lot of unknown factors coming into play about whether or not we'll have a full team representing us for the next few years. One of the names at the heart of it all is RJ Walker, the current RAWards "Performance Artist of the Year" winner for SLC and key figure in the Wasatch Wordsmiths, working double duty as a performer and organizer to keep our scene thriving, and encouraging new talent to rise to the top. Today we chat with Walker about the career he's had so far and where the slam community is headed. (All pictures courtesy of Walker.
Gavin: Hey RJ, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm a guy who does things. I was born pretty young, unsurprisingly. I've worked as an EMT for five years, which made me very poor. So I decided that if I was going to be a poor sad person, I might as well do it professionally. I decided to pursue an artistic career. I live in an old polygamist house with my cat and three awesome roommates, and my fourth roommate, who is kind of a dick.
Gavin: What first got you interested in writing and performance art?
I came home from an LDS mission early. I was essentially disowned by the community I was part of, and thrown out of my parents house. I had to take the first job I could find, which was as a night security guard. They wanted medics to sit around, just in case more than nothing happened. Having absolutely no friends, community or hobbies, I decided to get them. I began writing jokes during the extremely boring hours of my night security job. I had heard of the open mic at the Greenhouse Effect Coffee Shop near my house, and I started telling my jokes there.
Gavin: Did you do anything in high school or college in those areas, or did you keep your work more to yourself?
I knew I liked writing in high school. I wrote a 300-page Smokey and the Bandit
fan fiction. It was terrible.
Gavin: How did you eventually come to write poetry, and what was your early work like?
My early work consisted of mostly short stories and short monologues. Most of them were comedy; most notable was a series of short stories that I would read at the Greenhouse Effect Open Mic that detailed the adventures of Jack Bakowski, Mall Detective—a grizzled alcoholic mall cop who protects the Fashion Place mall from bizarre and cartoonish circumstances. People really liked them. Those didn't work well for a poetry slam, however. The first piece I really did in a poetry slam was Lub Dub
. Not a particularly humorous piece, which is what I was known for. But it did well in the slam, and continues to do well.
Gavin: What was your first year like performing poetry, and what were some of the biggest lessons you learned?
The first year of doing poetry slam was interesting. I kind of exploded out of the gate. People were surprised at my sudden success. I took 2nd at the first slam I ever competed in. But I had been performing at Greenhouse every Sunday with new material for a full year before ever touching a slam stage. My goal was to show up at Greenhouse with at least one new piece a week, but I was trying to always get three new pieces written for open mic. Most of the time, I was able to make it. Slowly, my skills increased as a writer and performer as I learned how to read an audience. Biggest lessons I learned: Being funny and being a douchebag are completely different things; freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom from consequences; and don't eat fast food right before going on stage.
Gavin: What's your process for creating a new piece?
It depends on the kind of piece I want to write. I tend to write humor at Greenhouse, because there are lots of friends there, and also lots of crazy people who tend to be good inspiration for comedy. If I just have a lot to write, I go to Denny's. They continue to bring you coffee, and you only have to buy it once. Plus, no distractions. You don't want to talk to anybody who goes to Denny's, and if you see someone you know, they'll just pretend they don't know you and you'll pretend you don't know them. The magic of Denny's. Most of the time, I'll write down ideas (when I have them) in a notebook, and then return to them later.
Gavin: How many changes does your work go through before you finally refine it to the final form?
If my work were Frieza, from Dragon Ball Z
, it would take half the season for it to reach its final form. But since it's not Frieza, I'm afraid to say that it never
really reaches its final form. It's never really done. Sometimes I'll revise a piece I thought was done for years. I'll usually obsess over edits and peer feedback until about a week before I need to perform the piece for a competition or a showcase and I'll spend that week memorizing and creating the performance. I'll usually perform the piece at an open mic before the competition. Usually, it will take a few live performances before I have the choreography all figured out.
Gavin: What was it like for you getting involved with the Salt City Slam team?
The team experience was definitely a needed change of pace. Learning how to write and perform in group pieces and being able to bounce ideas off of teammates and a coach was a huge boon. Plus, having the coach to guide me and tell me which pieces to focus on and which pieces to do in competition helped a lot more than I thought it would. I spent way too much time worrying about what piece to do and strategizing over the competition. Still do. This year and last year, I've represented Sugar House. Look at that photo of this sexy team. We recently made finals stage at the 40 oz. Poetry Slam (Denver's regional competition) and we made finals stage at the Utah Arts Festival. Sugar Slam is coming to the National Poetry Slam to kick ass.
Gavin: You went to represent SLC in 2013 at the World Poetry Slam. What was that experience like for you?
I was representing Sugar House, actually, in both 2013 and 2014. I find the competition to be far more challenging and rewarding at the individual tournaments like IWPS (Individual World Poetry Slam) 2013, in Spokane, was my first, and I placed 32nd. In 2014, in Phoenix, I placed 23rd. IWPS has 1-minute, 2-minute
and 4-minute time limits, which add interesting challenges. The 1-minute round is the most challenging.
Gavin: What have bee some of your favorite performances to date and why?
The Utah Arts Festival is always a great time. I won the Nerd Slam at IWPS 2013. I tied with Sam Mercer, who had a fantastic poem about the Hulk Making an Omelet "In a Too Small Kitchen," which is one of my favorite poems I've heard. I did my poem about Bowser
. We settled the tie with a haiku death-match, and I won.
Gavin: You joined the Wasatch Wordsmiths a while ago and are part of their leadership. How has it been working with them and influencing the voices coming up?
As the vice president, and now also, Slam Master (event organizer) of Salt City Slam in Weller Book Works, it has been both stressful and rewarding to help lead SLC's poetry slam scene. Some of it kind of got dropped on my lap, and I've had to learn a lot. Now that I'm all settled in the Slam Master chair, I have a lot of exciting new plans for the 2015-2016 poetry slam season. Sugar Slam, run by Benjamin Barker, is also undergoing some changes. Joffee's Coffee's, our venue, is closing and moving to a location that is not suited to hold a slam. Our new Sugar House venue is going to be the new Spitz location on Wilmington Avenue, in the heart of Sugar Hood, on Aug. 20.
Gavin: Earlier this year you took part in the RAWards. What was that showcase like and what did you think of the talent that came from that?
Kind of funny you mention that. I literally did nothing
for the RAWards. I hardly even knew they were going on. I did my RAW showcase,
and didn't have much time to do another one, but my profile remained up. Then, one day, I got an email saying that I won! And I was like "great, I'll just file that email with the penis enlargement spam," until I saw that it was from RAW and I was named SLC's Performance Artist of the Year! Super Cool! Nice little surprise certificate came in the mail. You heard it here first kids. If you want to win, just do cool stuff, and then later, sometimes, people give you shiny things and call you a winner. RAW had a lot of great talent. I especially loved the photographers who showcased their work. Salt Lake has a really awesome photography scene. I was the only spoken word artist, to my knowledge.
Gavin: Who are some local names you believe people should be checking out?
In spoken word—Jose Soto
, definitely. He's on this year's Salt City Slam team, and was also on the 2015 CUPSI (the college ball of poetry slam) team, which I coached. This kid is absolute fire. His experience in the brutal, heartless, and cruel world of speech and debate has given him a clear advantage over other poets.
Gavin: Where do you see our slam and poetry scenes going in the next couple years?
Hopefully we're able to grow and bring in new talent. With big names like DeAnn Emmet and Jesse Parent retiring, we're going to need more badass poets to come into the scene. Also, nationally, there are some changes that will affect our scene. They are grounding the national poetry slam in four cities, three of which are really far away from Salt Lake City and are going to be expensive to send teams to. Unless we get a grant writer, and a good one, for our non-profit, we will likely have to send a unified team with two poets from Salt City Slam and two poets from Sugar House to represent our city and scene. This is going to make competition to get on a slam team way more fierce.
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of 2015?
Sad poems, maybe a tour. I'm toying with the idea of touring the southwest and competing in the Texas Grand Slam. I've also begun narrating audio books for Audible; I just finished one for author HJ Lawson called War Kids
that should be released on Audible sometime in August. I've also started drawing up plans for a new chapbook to release in 2016. I plan on doing more commissions after nationals too, folks can order a poem from my online store