Born to Slam
With a tenor octave and a street vernacular, spoken word artist and ASU alumnus Myrlin Hepworth hypnotizes the crowd at Lawn Gnome Publishing on Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix.
Hepworth preforms his routine with a green hat cocked to the side and a neatly trimmed beard camouflaging an ageless face. Meanwhile, he coordinates lyrical twists and turns with aggressive yet smooth movements behind the mic — it’s a portmanteau of things, but most importantly it’s genuine.
When Hepworth left his home state of Idaho for college in Arizona, his parents equipped him with two poetry books: one by Billy Collins and another by Jimmy Baca. Hepworth had a hard time relating to Collins, yet Baca spoke to him.
“[When] I read Jimmy Baca, people were getting stabbed, [so] I could get down with it. It was like Tupac — except real Chicano. I read it back to back before I landed at Sky Harbor,” Hepworth says.
Moving out to Arizona, Hepworth didn’t know anyone besides a friend of a friend’s sister who picked him up from the airport. She dropped him off at one of the eight places where he would stay during those first two years on his own. He would bounce from place to place in the greater Phoenix area during that time, living with two women in a sorority to a one-bedroom apartment with three kids.
“The first year, I spent Saturday nights looking at ceilings," Hepworth says. "I read all of Jimmy Baca’s books [and] I wrote short stories and poems. They were all really bad. But I was 18 [and] I felt good about myself because I wasn’t in Idaho."
During his self-imposed stay-about Hepworth attended Mesa Community College and worked at a preschool to pay the bills. Within a year of coming to Arizona, Hepworth began attending poetry slams on Mill Avenue in the plaza next to what is now Mojo Frozen Yogurt. Though it no longer takes place, the event, called Mills End, was renowned by the slam poetry scene.
“It’s outside on Friday night on Mill Avenue. So you have massively drunk college kids walking drunk on the sidewalk where you’re performing. There’s planes going over your head, there are cars and people are always yelling from [the] cars,” Hepworth says.
It was here that Hepworth decided to try out slam poetry, which speaks volumes to the decibels of confidence Hepworth had back then. When his first reading registered a flat note due to a case of the nerves, he came back the next week and tried again.
“I was like, 'I can do better than that.' So, when I had to go back up, I smashed it. Killed it. I did my poem that I actually had memorized. It was about a kid that I had worked with, and afterwards I felt the bug,” Hepworth says.
Within a year of his second performance Hepworth essentially became a full-time artist. And even did a show with Baca in 2009.
“It was [just] one of those moments. It was the first time I was paid really well. I had a hotel room – and meeting him was really cool. He was really good to me. He’s an interesting cat, unlike anyone I’ve ever met or will ever meet,” says Hepworth.
Photo courtesy of Myrlin Hepworth
Hepworth says he was also inspired by a slam poet named Jamaal May Versiz and tried incarnating his spirit and intensity when he first started.
“I emulated his style for a little while," Hepworth says. "He was intense, very much like I’ll push you then pull back. [But] I eventually came into my own. I’ve had quite a few influences, [but] I feel like I stay pretty unique."
Hepworth attributes his rapid success to remaining enigmatic as an artist: “I feel like maybe I’m less generic than most dudes. Maybe it’s novelty, maybe someone likes me just because I don’t fit the conventional role of a male. A lot of what I want to talk about in my art is masculinity and femininity,” says Hepworth.
Currently, Hepworth performs in Arizona and across the United States giving performances around three to four times a week for various audiences.
Despite all the accolades, Hepworth is most proud of the kids (high school and college students) he’s tutored with the slam poetry team, Phoenetic Spit, which he founded with his friend Tomas Stanton in August 2011.
The team is currently in the process of working on a poetry program for over six public schools, which provide nearly 100 workshops along with over 35 school performances, open mics and poetry slams.
Two standout students have made his experience especially worthwhile.
One of his former students is Sean Medlin, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who started working with Hepworth in 2009 and eventually started to feature in some of Hepworth’s shows in 2011. The hard work Hepworth invested as Medlin’s mentor helped get him a full-ride scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for his poetry.
“I owe it to Myrlin for getting me to the point where I can be recognized,” Medlin says. “Myrlin molded me into the poet that I am right now at this point in my life, and helped me organize better. He’s been very influential."
Another student of Hepworth’s is Garret Pauli, a senior at Bioscience High School in Phoenix who started writing and performing poetry a year ago and began working with Hepworth in the summer of 2011.
Photo courtesy of Myrlin Hepworth
His resume includes opening for the widely known poet Saul Williams, performing in front of 600 people at Home Base Poetry Set (one of the largest monthly slam poetry events in the nation) and winning the poetry slam at Lawn Gnome Publishing the night Hepworth featured.
Pauli says Hepworth has been a catalyst to his poetry career.
“He helps me and guides me through it. He gives me all these opportunities," Pauli says. "[He’s] one of the most stand-up guys that I know. I see a lot of mentorship, fathering and guiding qualities in him [and] he’s a great guy. There’s no one like him."
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