The mountain has dreadlocks.
They frame a benign face and bearded mouth, like curtains pulled aside from a darkened stage. Poetry begins to flow from him, like a clear stream descending from a peak. He wears a T-shirt as Carolina blue as the sky and an expression rapt as a man hearing music from the stars.
But Bluz is making the verbal music himself on a Thursday night at Wine Up, the NoDa club where Bluz (pronounced “blues”) and other writers perform their poems.
He speaks a paean to fathers who didn’t intend to be dads but stuck by their children. In another poem, he bursts into strange metaphors: A troubled soul is like a refrigerator with a broken seal, where everything put into it begins slowly to spoil.
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Sometimes he weaves back and forth and releases words with a preacher’s ecstasy, as if speaking in poetic tongues. His left hand hangs peacefully at his side; his right cocks a finger, as if pointing a pistol, then thumbs pessimism back over one shoulder in a poem about freedom. Finally he takes impromptu audience suggestions – “fire hydrant,” “Russians,” “love,” “geopolitical equity” – and weaves them into a poem that’s absurd and funny, yet oddly comprehensible and a bit romantic.
At 36, Bluz believes he is one of the few poets making a living solely by his words – he has heard that 1 percent of self-proclaimed poets do that – with a range that extends from the TV show “NASCAR Today” to Spoken Word Fridays on WPEG-FM.
And he has become an elder statesman on the local scene, as the slam master who coached SlamCharlotte to national poetry titles in 2007 and 2008. He leads the current team into battle on home turf this week: The 2012 National Poetry Slam, billed as the world’s largest team performance poetry event, has taken over six Blumenthal Performing Arts venues.
An unforeseen future
His life splits neatly in half, B.P. and A.P.
Before poetry there was Boris Rogers, born in McComb, Miss., and raised in Germany – his dad was in the Air Force – before moving to Sumter, S.C. He went off to study communications at UNC Charlotte in the mid 1990s, where he heard poet Jessica Care Moore read a self-affirming poem titled “Black Statue of Liberty.”
After poetry was everything else.
“I wrote a piece called ‘Sheroes’ – yeah, I know.” He laughs at the title. “It was about women in history who did great things.”
But it confirmed a suspicion he’d had in high school, when he was told to re-write a Shakespearean sonnet in his own voice.
“The teacher said, ‘This isn’t as good as you think. It needs work.’ But I thought, ‘No, it doesn’t. You said to use our own voices, and this is my voice. I have a voice of my own.’ And I started writing more.”
He read around the college and in other venues and was eventually recruited into SlamCharlotte almost a decade ago by one of its founders, Terry Creech. Eventually, the buzz around Bluz swelled to a roar.
In 2007, he wrote and performed vignettes for a NASCAR shoot. (“That was the first time I got paid. I thought, ‘ Now you are a writer.’ ”) He networked from that gig to Raycom Sports, Charlotte Center City Partners, even “a bunch of guys in suits at Canteen Vending.”
He added college tours, which pay a lot of the bills. He took on radio work and performed as part of a hip-hop duo, Ryythem and Bluz. He published a book of poetry and recorded albums of his work.
A newfound maturity
And along the way, the prowling young lion turned into a patriarch of the herd.
Early on, he recalls, “I wanted the world to know who I was: ‘Put anyone in the ring, I’ll fight him!’ I’d open the paper and say, ‘What issue can I rant about today?’ I’d ask myself, ‘How will other poets approach this topic, and how can I be different?’
“As you get older, you go from the external world to the internal world. Instead of a poem about the health care system, I’ll do one about my daughter being sick and (my) not having enough health insurance to help her. This is my life, for real. So it’s probably other people’s lives, too.
“I compose poems for special occasions when people want me to. But when I’ve written (for myself) recently, a lot of the poems have been about my daughters. So now I have an audience of fathers.”
That paternal quality endeared him to Charlotte filmmaker Beverly Penninger, who asked Bluz to write a minute-long poem for the end of “From the Heart,” her 30-minute video about bullying.
“I’ve seen him perform, and I find his work passionate, compassionate, mesmerizing and powerful,” she says. “I asked him to write that poem (to go over) the closing credits. Once we watched the finished film with our clients, the Junior League of Charlotte, we felt strongly that it needed to stand alone. We re-cut the (end) on our own time, because it was the right decision for the program and Bluz’s poem.
“It makes the close exponentially stronger. To me, it feels not only like Bluz is recognizing and reaffirming the value of the young people in the program, but every person watching. There’s no way you can listen to him and not feel what he has to say. It’s not just the words and the delivery; it’s his physical presence. (He) knows who he is, and he has the power to inspire others to embrace their true selves.”
The older man, the younger poets
Bluz placed 13th in the world slam rankings five years ago but doesn’t compete as vigorously these days. He’s guiding a team of other poets at this week’s national slam. (He’s grateful to be paid for that job; he says most slam masters aren’t.)
“You make sure the venue is up and running. You may be an emcee. Mainly, you choose the lineup and the poems they’re going to use,” he says. “Does one have a poem that speaks directly to women? Does one deliver a laugh at the right time? You negotiate with poets about their strengths. It’s like a gymnastics routine: They have three minutes and 10 seconds, so they don’t insert lines or change the mood on the spot. I listen to every opinion, but my decision has to be the last one.
“If poets get antsy (about a decision), you try to talk them down off the ledge before they go on. But you finally have to let them go with their gut and do what they feel is right. If they turn out to be wrong, you don’t call them on that afterward.”
He calls poetry slams “the fairest unfair game around.” The five randomly picked judges aren’t poetry experts. The top and bottom scores for each performer are thrown out, and the rest are averaged.
As slam master, Bluz tries to “pick a diverse group of judges racially. Maybe I’ll pick a same-sex couple. You don’t know if a judge is happy or angry or just broke up with somebody. But poets who give the most sincere performances, the ones full of emotion or introspection, usually win.”
Bluz still gets a healthy dose of performance anxiety before a slam: “The day I don’t get nervous before I go onstage will be the day I know I’m done.” He was flattered to be invited to a recent Legends Showcase but turned it down – for now – as it would mean an end to competitions.
Setting different goals
Yet the poet has new objectives these days. Onstage, he’s still Bluz, “the guy with a sense of humor who isn’t afraid to say anything.” Outside the public eye, he’s firmly Boris Rogers, whose motivation is to raise two girls to be happy adults. Sometimes, he says, “Boris Rogers has experiences, and Bluz will tell you about them.”
He doesn’t believe a poem has a shelf life: “You write about a tree; that tree changes, and you can write more about it. As long as you’re alive, the poem is alive.”
But a poet may have an expiration date.
“I’ve thought, ‘Am I getting long in the tooth for this?’ But I don’t see an endpoint. I think about bigger goals: maybe writing an inauguration poem for a president, getting an MFA and teaching poetry, starting a slam program for kids in high schools.
“The next stage right now is to make another CD, this one more musical and exploring the hip-hop side. When you’re young, you can free-form everything. But when you’re older, you plan to do definite things that can make you some money.”