On Tuesday nights, the Re-bar nightclub in downtown Seattle opens its doors to a culturally diverse, multigenerational crowd with poems on their minds.
Some are regulars, others new to the weekly editions of the Seattle Poetry Slam, a format that’s part open mike, part competition. Some present will work up the nerve to read their own writings aloud. Others are just there to listen.
Tonight Daemond Arrindell will be doing both. As people file in from the bar, this dedicated Seattle performance poet and teacher is behind the scenes as usual, greeting friends and newcomers, while efficiently doing his job as producer, or slam master — “another term for workhorse,” Arrindell cracks.
The clean-cut 38-year old with the neat Van Dyke beard has been involved in the Seattle Poetry Slam (producing, plus coaching teams of poets to complete in national slams) for more than a decade. But he wasn’t always confident enough to recite his own deeply personal poems on stage.
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“The microphone terrified me,” admits the soft-spoken, intent Arrindell. “But I’m asking the kids I teach to reveal themselves out loud. And to not be challenging myself in the same way seems dishonest.”
Tonight Arrindell hits the spotlight early and launches into his poem, “Black Jacques.” His calm demeanor and preppy attire may suggest the piece will be low-key, even sedate. But it is a raw, passionate ode about racial identity, a young African-American boy’s dreams of becoming a famous scientist and the anguish roiling inside him. Arrindell’s intensity builds and builds, yet never overwhelms the words, which hit home and engender loud applause.
The combination of cool and charisma Arrindell brings to the poetry stage has also helped him turn hard-core offenders, troubled teens and other hard-to-reach populations, along with those simply searching for a creative outlet, into impassioned poets.
A fervent proponent of spoken-word performance, Arrindell believes it “democratizes” poetry by returning it to a populist oral art form. “One reason why the poetry slam exists is as a counterpoint to an elitist academic view of poetry,” he says. “It allows people who haven’t studied writing to express themselves openly.”
“Daemond gets people over the mental hump of putting pen on paper,” says Eileen Yoshina, director of diversity and equity at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia. She has engaged Arrindell’s skills for workshops and forums because “he’s able to make people comfortable, and validate their experience. He knows how valuable writing poetry can be, and just inspires you.”
Robin Lynn Smith, the head of Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio, has seen Arrindell work minor miracles in Freehold’s Engaged Theatre program. It brings plays, and drama and writing classes into Monroe Correctional Complex, Echo Glen Children’s Center and other local residential facilities.
“Daemond is an extraordinarily present and insightful facilitator of people opening up their souls through writing,” says Smith. “He’ll walk into a setting where these tough guys are telling him, ‘I hate poetry,’ and he’ll have them write about why they hate it.
“In a Harborview Hospital psych ward, he got patients to open up and write about things they care about, and dream about, and think.” In one session, Smith marvels, therapists were amazed when he got a woman, who had not spoken during her Harborview stay, to participate.
Arrindell considers poetry to be a “powerful, validating and unifying” force, a kind of “verbal déjà vu” that reflects our own truths back to us.
He’s also on a mission to challenge the caricatured image of a macho, rapper-styled, obscenity-spouting street poet. “I feel when people see an articulate man of color, talking about the things I talk about, it contradicts mainstream stereotypes,” he says.
“I address vulnerability, masculinity, race, but in ways that aren’t typical. I grew up as a swimmer, a kid who read books and helped care for my brother and sister. I wanted to be a scientist and I was pretty quiet, an overachiever.”
Gift for helping others
As a child in Queens, N.Y., Arrindell idealized the famed oceanographer and film documentarian Cousteau. And early on, he displayed a gift for helping others. He taught swimming lessons and assisted his mother, a special-education teacher, in her classroom.
“I’ve been working with kids since I was a kid,” he points out, matter-of-factly. While attending Michigan State University, he volunteered at a campus-crisis center. “There’s something about crisis that works well for me. I tend to not freak out in crisis situations.”
By then, Arrindell also had discovered, to his surprise, that he loved writing poetry — “it just poured out of me.” And during an impromptu trip to the 1999 People’s Poetry Festival in New York City, he discovered “cowboy poetry, haiku, adult slams and youth slams.”
The festival reflected a new surge of urban poetics that was flourishing in cafes, at slams, through cable TV’s “Def Poetry Jam” and in less commercial forms of rap music. Due to financial and other pressures, Arrindell left college in his junior year, and decided to head to Seattle “for three reasons. I had friends there. I knew there were a lot of opportunities to do social service work there. And Seattle was hosting the National Poetry Slam that year.”
Arrindell got involved in the local slam scene. And for nine years he worked at Teen Link, a Seattle teen hotline and crisis clinic where he “specialized primarily in teaching others, kids and crisis management people, how to be effective listeners.”
With his poise and experience, he continues to get hired for social services and teaching jobs over others with advanced degrees in his field. (Recently, in 2012, he taught a slam-poetry course at Seattle University.)
‘A killer poem’
One plum gig has been working as a writer in residence in local public schools. On a recent afternoon, he is teaching students at West Seattle’s Chief Sealth High School in one of teacher Heather Griffin’s classes.
Most in this mixed group of teens listen attentively and follow Arrindell’s instructions to make a list of the jobs they’d least like to do — a writing “prompt” (exercise) that will later result in a “persona poem,” written in the voice of an imaginary character performing an unappealing job.
A few boys keep chattering and clowning, ignoring the teachers’ requests to stop. Their disruptive behavior doesn’t break Arrindell’s stride. “When I’m not getting through to a kid I ask myself, ‘What am I not doing that I should be to get them involved?’ ”
One attention-grabbing device: Bring out “a killer poem.” Today it is “The Undertaker” by New York poet Patricia Smith.
It is a graphic, heartfelt lament by an inner-city mortician, who despairs as yet another mother begs him to make her dead son, gruesomely maimed by bullet wounds, presentable for his funeral. Arrindell plays a video of Smith reciting the poem which, he explains, she wrote to help deter her own son from violence.
Instantly, the room quiets. Even the misbehaving kids seem spellbound by Smith’s words, her urgent delivery and, maybe, the ode’s relevance to their own lives. Arrindell seizes the opening, asking students which lines and images hit them, and how they interpret them.
Observes Griffin, “(Daemond’s) role as guest, someone who is cool, a real writer; the fact that he brings in spoken word texts about topics all of our kids can get into — those things help all kids get engaged, and then he gives them a way to access the writing process that isn’t scary.”
Almost anyone is capable of expressing themselves through poetry, believes Arrindell — including the most turned-off, tuned-out and incarcerated youths.
“A lot of them have horrible self-images. My goal is to challenge their thinking and give them a new framework. They can see I’m not concerned with being tough, or rich. I talk about getting scared sometimes, feeling alone. That’s an honesty a lot of young people haven’t given voice to yet.”
After undergoing a painful divorce last year, Arrindell took honest stock of his own life. “I was working 80 hours a week, and all I was doing was giving to others without doing much for myself or my relationship,” he says. He rolls up a sleeve to reveal the words “Kiss Fear Goodbye” tattooed in block letters on his forearm. “I realized if something scares me it’s something I need to do, or fix.”
Though he still maintains a full schedule of teaching, mentoring, coaching, Arrindell makes more time now for a new intimate relationship, and for his own poetry.
“When I’m standing on stage performing my words, I’m in the place where I feel most vulnerable and, strangely, the most safe,” Arrindell says. He wants to stay in that place, and help others find it too.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org