8 p.m. Wednesday, March 17
Urban Think Bookstore
625 E. Central Blvd.
"That's a giant open broken home
hopelessly grown from overblown
adjectives with addresses at poems that meet at streets where most won't walk
2 roads from life off of writers block."
— by Dave Campbell (aka Strat),
page 4, Big Bad Slam Poet
Dave Campbell, who performed as "Strat" or "Strata-G," exploded on the Orlando slam poetry scene in late 2003, though he'd been active in MC online battles for years beforehand and was a rapper in two local projects. On local stages the likes of Stardust Video & Coffee and Austin's as well as battles downtown and around UCF, the wiry firecracker's energy and enthusiasm brought people to their feet until Aug. 5, 2008, when Strat hung himself at age 26.
Why he did it is unknowable. Those close to him saw the darkness of depression, but he left no note nor gave any prior indication of his pending decision; the reasons for his final push over the edge are lost. Sadly, the only permanent record of his work were some clips on MySpace until Barry Campbell, Strat's father, posthumously released Big Bad Slam Poet (Lulu), one thin volume of his poetry and an accompanying CD. Fittingly, on March 17 — what would have been Strat's 28th birthday — Campbell and local poet Curtis Meyer have a tribute planned, featuring guest readings from Strat's book and other musings.
"I didn't really see much of his poetry or know about his performances until after he died," explains Campbell about the impetus to preserve his son's legacy. "He told me about his slams and rap battles," he continues, but "someone once said that he segmented his life." Proceeds will go to Strat's 6-year-old son, Taylor, but Campbell says that isn't the main reason he's publishing the memorial. "I just want people to experience his poetry."
Big Bad Slam Poet explores Strat's passion for his specialty, slam poetry. The book utilizes spare punctuation and capitalization to mimic the way Strat actually wrote things down, and it's an effective tool for re-creating his street persona. His words, now captured on paper, stand strong for content and creativity, but they miss the intensity of Strat's live performances that made him such a force in the local slam scene.
That experience is tough to come by, and it was a source of contention in the poetry scene during his tenure. As fellow poet Tod Caviness wrote last November in Word Count, his Orlando Sentinel blog: "Strat was a walking blueprint of what performance poetry should be. He was literate, gracious and his loud, confrontational delivery never overshadowed the denser emotions in his work. Not surprisingly, he was just as well known and feared on the local rap battle circuit for the same reasons."
In 2004, Strat dominated the Orlando slam scene, which was then populated by a surprisingly broad spectrum of writers of all ages and backgrounds; he won "grand slams" (essentially finals) for the Broken Speech Slam and the since retired Say Anything Slam. It was the first year this area had two teams, and Strat could pick which one he wanted to be on.
At the time, I was (and still am to an extent) a staunch supporter of greater academic influence in the world of slam. In an article I wrote for this paper covering a state bout in which Strat competed, "The hip-hop aesthetic" (June 17, 2004), I concluded that the audience-based judging led to inauthentic populism and race-baiting. Strat refuted such arguments from me both in private conversations and on a now-defunct online poetry forum.
"Slam is very literal," says Meyer, who has five times represented Orlando at the National Poetry Slam. He had similar discussions with Strat and remembers telling him about a poem he was studying in a literature class that was published multiple times using different edits. "Strat said something like, ‘That's just writers who don't have faith in their work,'" Meyer recalls. "I think that was the MC in him."
Like freestyle rap, Meyer says, "You may one day have a college course on slam, but you'll never have a class of kids just sitting around and analyzing it. They'll have to focus more on the historical aspects of the scene."
Strat's best repudiation of slam's supposed shallowness was to get on stage and do what he did. Though he often came with prepared material, he just as often freestyled, and it was hard to deny how his deep-cutting words could fly off the cuff at a speed faster than most of us can comprehend, never mind appreciate the cleverness, assonance and double entendres.
"He called it zoning out," says Meyer. "He claimed it was a feeling like your body is thinking for you." Imagine it like Coltrane on the saxophone or watching a dancer so caught in the rhythm he or she can do it with their eyes closed.
So it feels a little backward to be holding his typed and bound words in front of me in the form of Big Bad Slam Poet. Take the titular poem with these lines: "The one who can look at the plane we live on/with these real eyes and realize it's not a whole lot of truth, the majority is real lies living in real time" or "spending 60 portions of a minute with mother earth until writing is second nature." What reads cute on paper works brilliantly when accompanied by Strat's personal style of inflection and body language.
It's fair to say that we expected big things from Strat, despite the mainstream myth about the obscurity of slam poets. The National Poetry Slam continues to draw audiences of thousands annually and organizers ambitiously anticipate 15,000 viewers for the 2010 spoken-word celebration that's still in the planning stage. Strat qualified for teams in 2004 and 2005, but he never attended, even when his father offered to drive him to the hosting cities.
"If I had to really guess `why he didn't go`, I'd say it was probably fear of not being good enough," Meyer speculates.
That fear didn't keep him from getting on a plane in 2007 to perform at a showcase for Chapter 3 Productions Inc. and DiverseCity Records in Maryland. As the story goes, he got signed to a major deal after asking the audience for three words and improvising a rap to a beat he had saved on his phone. What is sure is that the deal fell apart in such a way as to cause him to put up bitter messages on his MySpace profile, calling the label a "fraudulent company."
The major-label story and others, like his epic five-hour freestyle, are apocryphal but passed along only by people who knew him. There's not even a mention of Strat's death in the book, as was his father's intention; a bio of Dave Campbell it is not. The Big Bad Slam Poet companion CD better conjures Strat's spirit: Audio files carry the breathless pace of his delivery and let the listener linger on his punch lines. In the poem "Her Words," the cadence of the line "her words laughed at thoughts of wisdom and were more prophetic than universes turned backwards in to gaping black holes as i was to her/her pupil" makes all the difference in how one peels apart the layers of meaning.
But the recording is not the same as witnessing Strat live for another reason: The judges of a slam are pulled from the audience, so the way to win is to get them behind you. Watching Strat's charisma connect was his real art. "The audience is the most important aspect of slam," says Meyer. "Without the audience, slam doesn't exist."
Big Bad Slam Poet is available at Lulu.com, Amazon.com and other booksellers, while the companion CD is currently only available on Hulu.firstname.lastname@example.org