Des Moines Poetry Slam: December Slam
Fox Brewing -- Tuesday, Dec. 20 at 7 p.m.
Poets wishing to compete must perform three original pieces. Sign-up starts at 6:30 p.m., and performances begin at 7. Those who do not wish to compete but would still like to try out some material onstage may have the chance to be a “sacrificial poet,” warming up the audience and judges before the main event.
Winners of the slam are awarded their pick of a new book. The prize selection was collected by Des Moines Poetry Slam director Kevin Marken while volunteering with Planned Parenthood’s book sale.
“Third place gets to pick first, second place gets to pick second, first price gets to pick last from whatever is left,” Marken explained to Little Village.
For over 20 years, Des Moines Poetry Slam has worked to give poets from all over the area a safe home to express themselves each month within a welcoming community. Marken has parented the organization for about half its existence, taking over when Heather Knowles, the organization’s founder, stepped down to spend more time with her teenagers.
Ironically, the man who has singlehandedly raised Des Moines Poetry Slam for about the past 10 years prefers not to take the mic himself, saying it “gives me the worst butterflies.”
“There’s people that won’t step on a stage,” Marken said, “and that’s me.”
“People are always surprised when they find out that I’m not a poet. I mean, I write occasionally, but I don’t write on a regular basis. I just love spoken word in all forms.”
There are other spoken-word groups in the city, such as Poetry Unplugged and Say What! Poetry, but Marken said the unfiltered atmosphere Des Moines Poetry Slam has cultivated over the years is worth preserving.
“Paramount to me is no censorship,” he said. “No, I’m not going to tell you what to read. I’m not going tell you what topics to read. We’ve had some heartbreaking shares … rape, sexual abuse, transgender and gay coming out [stories]. All the topics, every topic you can imagine, I’ve heard. So, that’s important. It’s an important place.”
While the subject matter can get serious, Slam doesn’t enforce an age limit at their events.
“Whatever happens on stage, happens on stage,” Marken said. “I usually go up to parent if somebody has a child in the room and explain there’s no censorship here, so if your kid is sensitive, that’s up to you. And then the same with the poets — if you’re comfortable performing a poem that you know might have some language in it or some topics in it with a kid in the room, then do it! If you’re not, then you’ve got to find something different.”
With that open door comes vulnerability, which Marken assures artists he will protect.
“If somebody says something, I will shut them down quicker than you can imagine. We don’t ever boo the poet. You can boo the judges all you want. The judge doesn’t give a great something that you feel is was warranted, you can boo them. But you’ll never boo the poet.”
“I tell every poet that comes up and is like, ‘I’m not sure what to read. I’m not sure I’m comfortable,’ [that] this is the most open and comfortable place you’ll ever be.”
Since Des Moines Poetry Slam began, poets congregated for their monthly competitions at Java Joes, located at 214 4th St in downtown Des Moines — that is, until the pandemic brought the Earth’s rotation to a halt.
In November 2021, the nearly 30-year-old Java Joe’s began moving their operations to their Ankeny location, leaving their longtime slam partner without a home.
With the closure, Marken had a new goal beyond keeping the scene alive: finding a monthly venue that could accommodate Slam’s needs. Fox Brewing in West Des Moines fit the bill.
Fox Brewing was founded in 2014 by Brian Fox, owner and head brewer. The brewery hosts many private events such as rehearsal dinners, retirement parties, birthday parties and even baby showers. “It’s really weird, but OK!” Fox says.
The brewery hosts yoga every Saturday at 11 a.m., a board gaming group, and other fun rotating events and games to give the community an excuse to enjoy some beer.
When it came to Des Moines Poetry Slam, there was no question whether spoken word would fit into what Fox describes as a space that makes “you feel like you’re drinking in your buddy’s basement.”
“That’s why we’ve got wood on the walls and ugly chairs in the corner,” Fox said.
Fox was connected with Marken, who explained the Slam had nowhere to go. “And I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a lot, but I’ve got space and you’re welcome to it’,” Fox recalled.
“It’s kind of a non-traditional space, and poetry in my mind has always been kind of against the groove, [an] off-the-beaten-path sort of thing. And it kind of makes sense to me to do it in the back of a warehouse on the wrong side of tracks.”
Fox doesn’t expect anything in return from Slam.
“I’m a supporter of the arts, for one, and I think that anything that can have more artistic expression built in the greater Des Moines area is a positive for the most part. People come, they drink beer, they’re friendly. They’re having fun. So, I want to support that in any way that I can.”