Words fly from their mouths with the greatest of ease as beat masters accompany on sax, drums and keys.
Welcome to the Bopaphonic Poetry Circus, where rhyme acrobats trade trapezes for tongue twisters and attempt to elevate a tradition carved out not by P.T. Barnum but by artists like Leonard Cohen and William S. Burroughs.
"We're trying to take performance poetry and put it into some kind of theatrical setting, get it out of coffeehouses, where you're just background," says poet, musician and ringmaster Robert Baker.
"What's going to be interesting is the accompaniment is going to be different from poet to poet. Hopefully what it will show is the rhythmic energy in performance poetry in all its various permutations."
Baker, Miles Bonny, Matt Fowler, Barry Barnes, Ed Tato and other Lawrence performance poets will take the center ring Friday and Saturday under the big top at Lawrence Community Theatre. Sideshow freaks, including a giraffe-necked elephant woman, an equestrian, a bearded lady and a two-headed gypsy fortune-teller, will add to the circus ambiance.
"It's sort of like smashing together poetry, music and circus and putting them into an atomizer," says show coordinator Penny Weiner. "We really don't know at this point what's going to come out of it."
Bring in the clowns
Baker, a housing and credit counselor, is perhaps best known in Lawrence for Three Minutes or Less, the annual variety show he organizes that features the community's quirky hidden talents. The same eccentric tendencies that sparked that show have inspired personal recording projects like "Robert Baker's Malarkey" and "Chameleon," CDs that feature poetry set to music played by Baker, Colin Mahoney and Brian Schey (the three call their trio Malarkey.)
Baker also helped produce "Kaw! Kaw! Kaw!" a compilation of Lawrence performance poets.
"I've been a performance poet since I was a teenager," Baker says. "I've always had an affinity for poems that I thought sounded like they should be read aloud. Some of the foo-foo poets, as I call them, never really made it for me.
"But when I first discovered Emily Dickinson at 10 years old, it made perfect sense to say out loud 'I'm nobody! Who are you? Are you -- Nobody -- too?'"
Baker now performs at arts centers, coffeehouses, college campuses and outdoor festivals about five times a year. He recently displayed his poetic prowess at the Austin International Poetry Festival in Texas.
His instrument of choice is the tenor saxophone, and its bold, vibrating tones often accompany his poetry. But he can play any woodwind instrument (his snake-charming clarinet accompanies "Chameleon," which he'll perform at the poetry circus.)
Miles Bonny embraces a different segment of the musical spectrum. The local producer who collaborates with Joe Good in the hip-hop group SoundsGood uses electronic accompaniment. His CD "Dino Jack Crispy" features a collection of his compositions.
"It's a sound that reflects the many sides of my personality, from humorous to crazy, serious to contemplative," Bonny says.
One of the pieces he's slated to perform at the circus is "Undergraduate Catalog," which he wrote as a freshman living in Hashinger Hall at Kansas University.
"I was new to Kansas and college and was beginning to feel the freedom of being on my own in the world," says Bonny, who's originally from New Jersey.
He finds the freedom of poetry appealing and hopes events like the Bopaphonic Poetry Circus will draw more attention to the genre.
"I don't consider myself an active poet, so I would not know of the struggles most area poets face. However, I believe that events such as this one ... are essential to its growth, and I think with proper exposure, these events will continue to grow."
So why the circus theme?
"I think it's a way of injecting in what often is sort of a staid genre a little excitement and a new way of looking at poetry," says Weiner, who in addition to her role as director will join the sideshow freaks as a midget.
The plan is for Weiner and her cohorts to be stationed throughout the theater building and for audience members to take in the sights between performances. The theater will be draped in parachute material to create the feel of a circus tent.
Of course everyone knows it's just a theater, but illusion always has played a big part in the circus, Baker says.
"A lot of the poetry material we're going to do is going to emphasize the idea that sometimes reality is perception, but perception can be illusionary," he says. "I think that's why we're trying to frame this in thematic circus imagery."
In the end, the festive environment is just a backdrop for the poetic high-wire acts at center stage, Weiner says.
"If you think about going to the circus, there's a lot of different emotions. People are excited and tantalized, but there's also this horrifying aspect of 'What if the guy falls off the wire?' or 'Do they really bite the head off that chicken?'
The sideshow antics and circus imagery are really "a cloak for all of this poetry and music, which is really wonderful," she continues. "There's some really great work coming out of the poets and musicians."