In the Fall of 2007, I was new to organizing slams. One night, I arrived at our usual venue early to set up, only to find that the venue (a comedy club that was usually dark on Mondays) had booked an X-rated Hypnotist on our usual day. I was somewhat disappointed, but I resigned the slam to what I saw as its fate for the evening: I assumed we’d have to cancel. When I called the Boise slam-master, Cheryl Maddalena, to tell her the news, she did not hesitate in telling me that there was no way we were cancelling. “Aren’t there restaurants and other clubs right around there? Go ask them if we can have the slam there?”
It seemed preposterous, but it happened. We walked across the street and asked the wait staff at a restaurant and bar if we could hold a one-night event in their space… you know… right now. Surprisingly, they agreed and we were back in business. Never mind that most of the audience was there to eat dinner, not see a slam. Never mind that a majority of the poets who performed had prepared satirical baby-eating poems, and were now performing them for old ladies trying to eat fish and chips. This is not the most awkward situation in which I have performed poetry, nor is it the only one to involve Cheryl Maddalena. In fact, all of them involve her.
We once performed during registration day at the College of Southern Idaho. The school put us right next to the doors of the registrar’s office and across the path from the LDS student organization. A group of Boise poets once performed for the city on the sidewalk in front of a parked bus. The city did not provide us with a PA system or with signage informing passersby why four earnest young people were shouting metaphors at them as they passed. Maddalena and three other poets were dismissed from the second half of a scheduled workshop and performance by a high school for using the word “dildo” in a poem. Maddalena had made it a point to clear the content with the school beforehand. Apparently, it was not sufficient.
Boise poets have performed at everything from car washes to wine tastings to high-school punk concerts to burlesque shows. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s always done with a purpose, and it’s always done with heart—and that heart is embodied in the person of Cheryl Maddalena.
Cheryl Maddalena did not invent slam poetry, nor did she bring it to Boise, Idaho. Maddalena started slamming in Berkeley, California while she was earning her doctorate in psychology. In short order, she was on teams competing in for National Poetry Slam Championships. I don’t mean that she was just at Nationals, I mean she was on the Finals stage.
Jeanne Huff and Bob Neal started a slam in Boise in 2001. As scenes often do, the scene was in a state of flux when Maddalena moved there in 2005. Some of the novelty had waned, the regular poets were growing out of slam and moving on to other things, and the organization had never been the kind of tightly-run ship that one would see in a slam venue in Berkeley, Seattle, or Chicago.
Cheryl Maddalena is, quite often, the most reluctant organizer I know. She didn’t want to assert control over Big Tree Arts, Inc. (the non-profit that organizes slams in Boise). However, she couldn’t bear the idea that a scene wouldn’t send a team to Nationals, or that poets wouldn’t have a way to raise funds to make trips they might not otherwise make, or to not see the kinds of poets she had come to know and love from the Bay Area, New York, Vancouver, and all points in between. There are times when arts organizing hurts feelings and breaks friendships, and the growing pains of Big Tree Arts left a few former figures of poetry in Boise by the wayside. This is an unfortunate byproduct of making changes and moving forward, but for any kind of scene—be it slam or visual art, concert venues or literary bongo-circles—changes will ruffle feathers. Old people will leave, new people will enter. The most important part is the art, and that is what must be maintained as a constant.
Sometimes meeting someone who will influence your life is a rather inauspicious occasion. When I first saw Maddalena perform, I leaned over to a friend who had come to the slam with me and said, “If I EVER sound like her, you have to tell me and I’ll walk away from this whole slam poetry thing immediately.” At that moment, I had no idea how much she would eventually teach me about performing, organizing, and the inherent value of being an artist.
For all of the crazy things Boise poets have done, Maddalena has been a leading voice insisting the poets be paid in some form or another. Poets are afforded the chance to work as volunteers for Big Tree Arts in exchange for BTA covering the bill to send them to Nationals, iWPS, or WOWPS. Poets from out of town who lead workshops are paid $150. At a time when I was altruistically clinging to an idea that art was priceless, Maddalena was teaching me that even that has a price. Poets who want to live as poets need to be paid to do so.
Cheryl Maddalena taught me the importance of the audience and how the seemingly arbitrary rules of slam are the key to audience participation. In some cases, I resisted the lesson, telling her “I will swear at any place at any time—these eight year-olds are are going to hear these words on the playground eventually!” In some cases, it was a lesson she let me learn on my own, sacrificing her own ego by performing “White Lady,” a poem I had insisted on, in a room full of Black poets and people waiting for a Hip-Hop concert to start.
I am influenced by artists long dead and by writers so famous I will never meet them in real life. I am also influenced, on a much greater and personal level, by artists, writers, and organizers I work with every day who don’t have book deals and will never show up in an Art History survey course. If I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that Cheryl is the second-greatest influence on me and my work, next to my own father. If this essay reads like a eulogy, let me be clear: Cheryl Maddalena is still very much alive. She continues to write, organize, and perform and has the unique ability to both inspire and frustrate me, even when I’m eight months and 500 miles removed from Boise.
In some ways, Maddalena is a reluctant organizer and, in others, she is a selfish one. She keeps organizing slams, writing grants, coaching troupes of younger, less experienced poets to perform in front of audiences as foreign to native Boiseans as performing for Martians, and writing, writing, writing. She keeps organizing because she can’t bear the idea of slam not being there for her. Luckily for me and for the rest of Boise, keeping it around for herself has kept it around for us as well.