Photograph by Rory Macnamara
Poetry in Motion
Word Core puts a new spin on an ancient art
By Patrick Sullivan
POET EIRIK OTT is sleeping in on a Tuesday morning, snuggling in bed with his two cats. But don't get the idea that he's comfortable. "I'm starting to get sick, and I'm really hoping it's not anthrax," he says. "I'm in a little college town, and I'm thinking, what a perfect place to dump anthrax.Think about what it would do to the national psyche."
Does that sound wussy? Well it might, because Eiric Ott, who sports the ironic stage name Big Pappa E, is the self-proclaimed king of wussy-boy poetry. But that doesn't mean he's not willing to take on a challenge.
As co-founder of a brand-new band of poets called Word Core, the 34-year-old Ott is also in the spearhead of a movement to spread a new gospel of poetry to a nation that is, as he sees it, hungrier than ever for the spoken word. Calling themselves "a rock band that uses words instead of power chords," Word Core is on a mission to take poetry beyond English classes, beyond coffeehouses, and even beyond the increasingly popular poetry slam format.
Ott, who now lives in Chico, recalls going to a poetry reading in an L.A. coffeehouse some years back that still makes him bristle with scorn: "They sucked. They were terrible. There was just people reading from pieces of paper, moaning and groaning about their girlfriends."
Word Core--which performs Nov. 2 at Sonoma State University--is out to change that. Drawing on influences ranging from hip-hop to punk rock to spoken-word artists like Henry Rollins, this four-man team offers a performance that's about as far from a quiet little coffeehouse reading as you can get. "Give us an audience and we will rock them," Ott says.
Of course, Ott and his crew are hardly the first to take up this challenge. For more than a decade now, poetry slams have been shaking up traditions by offering dramatic live readings that encourage fierce competition and audience participation. The members of Word Core have done their share of slamming. In fact, Ott and fellow Word Core member Eitan Kadosh were on a San Francisco team that took top honors in the 1999 National Poetry Slam in Chicago.
But the team's win there underscores Ott's ambivalent attitude toward the slam scene. At the end of the competition, Ott, Kadosh, and their comrades were tied for first place with a San Jose team. Many people in the 3,000- member crowd were insistently calling for a sudden-death elimination round to pick one winner. But the poets demurred. "We don't take this scoring shit seriously, so we refused," Ott recalls. "We said, 'If you guys are calling for a death match, there's something wrong.' So we tore the trophy in half and shared it."
Ott, despite his own rock-star rhetoric, is disturbed by the fact that some poets are simply not comfortable with slamming. "It's very in-your-face and masculine," Ott says.
Some critics also charge the slam format with elevating attitude over craft. Word Core does its share of screaming and joking. But Ott says that quieter pieces can work more sophisticated wonders. "To make that audience fall into rapt silence where all you can hear is the ice machine in the back of the room, ahh--that's even better than making them scream," Ott says.
Word Core aims to combine the best parts of the slam world with elements that offer a better chance for thoughtful, sophisticated poetry to reach people. "We have faith in the audience," Ott says. "They're not crows and we're not dangling keys in front of them.
Whatever else poetry may be to the members of Word Core, it's certainly not a hobby. All four members have toured extensively before, spending night after night on living room couches. But Word Core--which will perform its third show ever at SSU--represents an even bigger commitment for this crew, who used to make real money being bartenders, graphic designers, or substitute teachers.
"We've all quit our jobs to be poets," Ott says. "How fucking ridiculous is that? Excuse my language, but how do you explain that to your parents?"
Word Core performs Friday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. at Sonoma State University's Cooperage, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. Tickets are $5. 707/664-2382.
From the October 25-31, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.