The New Voice of Poetry

By Ginny Masullo

On the last Tuesday of every month (except December), the Ozark Poets and Writers Collective hosts a featured reader and open mic. At 7 p.m. this Tuesday, slam poet Houston Hughes is the feature, but he definitely will not be reading to the audience sitting in the Nightbird Books breezeway on Dickson Street.

Unless Hughes is “trying a piece out,” all of his poems are committed to memory. He knows them by heart, as the saying goes, and that heart comes through as Hughes uses his words, cadences and earnest views of this old blue planet to transmit his poetry.

Hughes, who earns most of his living performing poetry, holds lucid standards about how he presents his poetry to an audience.

“Once you know you’re proud of something, and you want to show it off, you do yourself a disservice every day you don’t memorize it,” Hughes said. He added that, “Any idea you sufficiently enjoy, you commit to memory.”

Reading has its place though. For him, it’s about reading things you’re trying out and getting a feel for. Hughes asserted that, “It’s almost impossible to be a great storyteller and be ‘on page’ If you’re on page, you’re reading the story, which means you’re learning, or relearning, the story and the words along with whoever you’re reading it to. You’re not living the words.”

Hughes discovered poetry at a poetry slam at Hendrix College, where he graduated with a B.A. in philosophy and religion. That was 2006, and he has been writing, performing and, as an Arkansas Arts Council artist, teaching poetry in the schools ever since. In 2010, he performed on the finals’ stage at the Individual World Poetry Slam (IWPS), placing him among the top 12 performance poets in the world.

This year, Hughes will not be competing in the IWPS (pronounced eye-whips). Instead, he and two other Fayetteville slam poets are the chief organizers of the 2012 IWPS, which will be held in Fayetteville from Oct. 3 to Oct. 6. The town will be crawling with slam poets from around the world who’ll be competing (that’s what slam poetry is, a judged competition of spoken word performers) against each other for the world title.

This Tuesday, listeners at the Ozark Poets and Writers Collective will get a taste of  what is to come in the IWPS festival. Listening to Hughes might change the way they hear poetry forever.

As always, the feature will be preceded and followed by an open mic with a four-minute time limit for each participant. By the way, Nightbird Books now serves tea, coffee, beer and wine. So bring some spending money for refreshments and buy a book or two while you’re there.

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