Underground Series: Dayton Poetry Slam
As an artist, finding a home where your artistry can live and breathe is a task only rivaled by finding your voice as a creative. For me, working as a creative has less to do with being an artist, and more to do with exploring unique ways to develop creative solutions. Though I was able to find both my artistry and my creativity simultaneously, defining my role as an artist has been a long journey that I am still on.
Today, Dayton, Ohio is not short of various styles of poetry shows; from slams, to open mics, to showcases, the scene here has grown to heights I had never imagined. I started performing spoken word at sixteen years old when my ambitious teacher gave our class an assignment to explore something happening in the city over the weekend and to bring proof that we attended to class on Monday. I discovered a poetry show at a café in our Historic Oregon District. It was small and brightly lit with a huge floor-to-ceiling window facing out to the street. The room smelled of lavender and something unfamiliar. I knew no one, but the room felt so inviting. I made my way to the back and began writing. A woman, not that much older than me, came around with a sign-up sheet. The nerves I had coming in left as I signed my name in that notebook. Ease came over me, and I knew that this was the beginning of something that would transform a part of me.
After that first performance, I went out seeking more shows and discovered a hole-in-the-wall place—an unmarked building in the heart of downtown Dayton. I had heard about a space with graffiti on every wall and a poorly-built stage with repurposed furniture and an “Elvis mic” at the center of it all. Making my way inside one Sunday night, I saw a crowd of faces, many older, many white. Again, without hesitation, I found myself on the stage with a newly-written poem on a napkin I found on the bar. Afterward, the host, Lincoln, came up to me, and asked me the typical questions one would when vetting a new arrival: questions like how long have you been performing? And how did you hear about the show? And with that conversation, began our thirteen-year friendship, and my fourteen-year on again, off again relationship with poetry. In that time, I grew to be a regular at the show in the most unique venue we’d ever house Dayton Poetry Slam. This was a community-based show where everyone contributed something to the cause. Imagine a space where everyone feels as though they belong. That was the atmosphere this show set out to create.
From bars to art spaces on university campuses, the space we had in the warehouse was the most welcoming obscurity. I grew up on stages and with slams, eventually having a four-year run as the host of Dayton Poetry Slam. When I left the show in 2013 to continue my work and my own creative exploration, I continued my love for poetry by maintaining those relationships connecting me to the scene of the city.
One of those relationships was with the long-time host of Dayton Poetry Slam, Lincoln Scheiber. Sitting down with Link over breakfast, a lot like the old days, was now difficult. Being a new father changes old habits, and as far back as I can remember, Link always dreamed of being a dad to a little girl. Now with two daughters, his time is spent between recitals and hosting. Fortunately, I was able to contact Link as I was writing this post. I wanted his perspective on what the poetry scene in Dayton looks like today, and how much of an impact an underground poetry scene can have on its community.
Shon Houston: Who founded the Dayton Poetry Slam, and why was it created?
Lincoln Schrieber: Bill Abbott created this version of the Dayton Poetry Slam in 1999, along with Drew Perfillio over at Canal Street Tavern. Bill was the desire and drive, and Drew was the venue contact and helped things along there. That’s why, when I took over in 2003 after Bill moved and Drew moved, the slam left Canal Street because there was no one there to smooth things over with the Tavern. There was an open mic called the Dayton Poetry Slam that ran for a little bit before Abbott started the slam; however, that was more of an open mic reading than a traditional poetry slam.
SH: What was the most challenging thing about creating and maintaining the slam?
LS: I think the most challenging aspect of running the slam is that fear that no one will show up. So much is tied to the audience. We’ve lost venues in the past because of low attendance and the audience not purchasing items from the bar or restaurant we were performing in. Even after 17 years of handling this show, I still get nervous every show that people aren’t going to show up. It’s almost a nervous tick for me that I can’t control.
SH: How has it evolved over time?
LS: Honestly, the show has evolved in the vibe that surrounds it, and that’s in large part due to Breanna McGowan and Johnathon Gallienne coming in. It was different when you stepped in to help, Shon, and the vibe is definitely different from when I took over for Bill. Also, the venue and audience have evolved over the years. It used to be the exact same people wanting to hear the exact same poems.
SH: What does it do for the community of poetry?
LS: It gives people a start in reading in public and a shot at a microphone that they may not get in any other reading or time. We’re also a very welcoming show. We welcome everyone regardless of sex, creed, or orientation and allow them the chance to get their thoughts out.
SH: What does the landscape of poetry in Dayton look like?
LS: I think the landscape of Dayton Poetry is very healthy, but I say that with some trepidation. Many of the shows have the same people time and time again with only a few new people drifting in . . . the audiences are dropping a bit because everyone is competing for audiences to come and share the poetry with. Keep in mind, we’re all out here to share poetry and give people the opportunity to read; however, the shows won’t last long if there’s no one to read to . . . pulling in new audience members is very difficult. As I mentioned earlier, it’s the most challenging aspect of running any show!
SH: Do you feel that there is an underground scene in the poetry community in Dayton, and why?
LS: I feel that the entire poetry scene in Dayton is underground. It’s the strange secret that not everyone knows about! We’ve been here for 20 years, and every month, I hear someone say, “I never knew this show existed!” Why is that? Honestly, it’s because the arts community here in Dayton doesn’t always recognize us as artists or poets. We’re the loud people and we’ve been shunned by many groups who are designed to support arts in the community because we’re too “small” and don’t have a high operating budget. So we’re really all left on our own to build ourselves up—that’s the struggle of many poetry shows across Ohio. But the slams have survived over the years . . . I can honestly think of probably a dozen different poetry shows here in Dayton that have come and gone simply because no one really knew about them.
SH: What role has hosting a poetry show for so long played in your life? How long have you hosted?
LS: It’s part of how I identify myself as a person. I’m a father, husband, Professor, and Poetry Organizer. Hosting and organizing this show for the past 17 years of its 20-year existence has been a genuine pleasure that I won’t give up. Even when I tried to give it up, let’s face it, I was still running the show. In all honesty, when I finally walk away from this show, I’m probably going to need therapy to recover. Or, I’ll just write a book of poems about it!