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Las Vegas slam poet Kari O’Connor found her signature style by chance

“Do you want to be a judge? Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. If necessary, I’ll walk you out to your car after the performance.”

Those words were Kari O’Connor’s introduction to slam poetry.

The year was 2000, and the recent college-grad and “page poet” had walked into Café Roma expecting a tame open-mic event. What she found was very different.

The host, Big Poppa E, a two-time Def Poetry participant, spotted the bewildered newcomer and asked her to judge. She would listen to poets and rate them 1-10. If the crowd disliked her scores, they would boo, but Big Poppa E assured her it was all in good fun.

O’Connor hesitantly agreed.

What she saw next was fascinating. She had dabbled with open-mic during high school and had performed in college, but this was unlike anything she had experienced.

“They were doing fantastic, emotional poetry,” O’Connor recalls. The audience was booing and cheering. The atmosphere was rich, energetic.

She gave her scores and fielded the crowd’s rowdy responses.

“I concluded I didn’t want to ever judge a poetry slam again,” she says, although she wanted to try her own hand at it.

O’Connor, a former CityLife contributor, describes her first slam as a “complete disaster.”

“I went up and read and thought I was doing really well,” she says. “Then I got my scores and realized I sucked at it.”

She got fives and sixes, when average scores are sevens and eights.

She was used to classroom criticism, where her peers’ pointed out specific faults in her work and then they could discuss it.

There was no opportunity for defense in slam poetry, but she was not detered.

O’Connor’s real rendezvous with spoken word began when two local poets, Andy Kenyon and Bakeem Lloyd, began to mentor her. Within a year or two, O’Connor had joined a team and went in 2003 to compete in a national competition in Chicago.

When she arrived, O’Connor was stunned. “I was competing with people that were on HBO. I was starstruck. It blew my mind.”

The experience was inspiring. She came home, wrote new material and put together a chapbook — a do-it-yourself book of poetry. She had found her niche.

O’Connor competed through 2006, but dropped off the map in 2007, when drama in the scene emerged. Instead, she focused on her writing and didn’t return to performance poetry until 2009-2010, when she organized readings at Sunrise Coffee with a friend. From there, friends started asking if she’d like to host slam poetry again. She had reservations, but the arrival of a poet from Northern Arizona and the Bay Area swayed her. The scene was changing. It was being infused with new voices and people who were genuinely interested.

“It started to be a real poets’ group,” O’Connor says of the slam gatherings at Sunrise. “By the end of the season, we didn’t have any chairs left.”

In the summer of 2011, O’Connor and her group moved to Yayo Taco, a larger, all-ages venue across from UNLV where kids could eat tacos and adults could drink. The event has continued to grow, and last year was the first time Las Vegas had an official group attend nationals since 2006.

Today, O’Connor’s group holds slams every first and third Thursday of the month at Yayo. They do workshops and play with themes like “haiku death match” and “masquerade.”

Anyone is welcome, and O’Connor hopes the group continues to thrive.

“I think the scene is awesome right now. It’s very vibrant and supportive,” she says. “I’m very happy with where it’s going. If people don’t know about it, they should check it out.”

Kari O’Connor will perform with other poets as part of the Vegas Valley Book Festival on Nov. 2, 6 p.m., on the First Friday Poetry Stage at Boulder Park Plaza, 1047 S. Main St.