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What fresh hell: Slam poetry champion David Blair dies unexpectedly at age 41.

July 28, 2011

Firing up my computer in the morning, I ofttimes feel like Dorothy Parker, throwing open the door to her apartment with the question, “What fresh hell is this?!?’ Today’s email brings news that David Blair, a past national slam poetry champion, died at his apartment last weekend.

You may not have heard of Blair but his passing is an incalculable loss to the spoken-word movement. Performing variously as Blair, D. Blair, or with his folk-rock band Blair and the Boyfriends, he carried himself with a grace, confidence and modesty that belied the depth of his talent and commitment.

I met Blair while covering the National Poetry Slam in West Palm Beach in 2009, where he appeared with page poet Maureen Seaton in one of the “Page Meets Stage” performances created and, in this case hosted, by Blair’s friend and fellow past slam champion, Taylor Mali.

Mali took pains to explain that the performance was not a competition, but if it had been Blair would have won easily.  Seaton’s poems were subtle and faintly musical, but she didn’t put much oomph into the reading. By contrast, Blair was not only a master showman, but his verses were also complex and skillful – page-ready, in other words.

Seaton read her poems from pages held in hand, while Blair recited from memory. He performed poems about blackness, sexuality, black sexuality and, a long fascination of his, Michael Jackson.

“I’m gay, but i don’t think there is a queer poetic theory,” Blair said at one point. “I am queer, but I am black and American and everything I am affects everything I do.”

Afterward I chatted briefly with Blair, who said he was a musician before he was a poet, and expressed admiration of songwriters like Nina Simone and Tom Waits. “They always had good words,” he said.

“I’ve been writing poems all my life,” Blair added, “but I never showed them to anyone. I like to think my writing is getting better.”

Born in New Jersey, Blair was based in Detroit, where he routinely won awards like “outstanding acoustic artist,” and “best urban folk poet.” He was an HBO Def Poetry Jam featured poet in 2005, and he shared billing with artists ranging from Stevie Wonder to Richie Havens to Wilco. For more, see his page at

Blair taught poetry and music in Detroit public schools, the YMCA and senior centers — yet, always striving to perfect his art, he still studied privately with a poetry instructor at the writer’s collective Write Word / Write Now.

It seems likely Blair’s best work still lay ahead of him. His first collection of page poetry, Moonwalking — his Michael Jackson project — came out in 2010.

Blair and the Boyfriends recently issued an album, The Line, with Repeatable Silence Records. You can find lots of Boyfriends performances at YouTube and elsewhere on the web, but this audio-only cut, titled “Enough Rope,” suggests Blair and the band had attained a new level of polish and sophstication.

I learned of Blair’s death from Miles Coon, director of the Palm Beach Literary Festival in Delray Beach, where Blair performed with Taylor Mali last January. Coon sent out an email mourning the passing of this enormously talented young man.

“David’s poetry, performed with such passion, brought the crowd to its feet numerous times that evening,” Coon writes. “Though David is gone, his great good heart and his amazing poems and performances live on.”

Many of Blair’s musical or spoken-word poetry performances can be found on the Internet, and I encourage you to seek them out. Here are two worth starting with, his spoken-word piece, “Detroit, While I Was Away,” and this amazing version of Emily Dickinson’s “Farewell,” which Blair set to music.

While the cause of death has not been determined, reports so far point toward heat stroke. Foul play is not suspected, according to the most recent reports I can find on the Internet.

Blair routinely toured the country and the world, taking American-style performance poetry to places like Russia and South Africa. He had a special affection for South Florida.

“I love West Palm Beach,” he told me that day two years ago, “and I always enjoy Delray. The cool quotient is more intense, especially with all these poets. I always enjoy being here.”

Amy Winehouse made me sad, but at least I could understand it, what with the drugs and all. But this one makes no sense. David Blair, RIP. Who’s next?






8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2011 4:29 pm

    Sad to hear. It is way to early. I am glad he found some peace in Delray Beach. Our little “Village by the Sea.” I know what he means or what he meant. Way to early. He had much more to give the world.

  2. Francis Shigley permalink
    July 29, 2011 9:31 am

    I had the pleasure of seeing him perform this past January in Delray. Some delightful young woman invited me, skeptical me, and by the end of the night I was looking forward to my next literary event, hopefully one that would include performances like the few I saw that night.

    Another great reminder that life should be savored– far, far more than I am akin to doing in the moment I find myself in.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 1, 2011 9:58 am

      My experience was similar. I was skeptical of performance poetry, but an assignment is an assignment, right? Fortunately, Blair was the first spoken-word poet I saw at the 2009 National Poetry Slam. He set the tone, making it possible for me to appreciate what came after.

  3. July 29, 2011 10:47 am

    I too had the pleasure of seeing him perform during the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in January. He was fantastic. It is very sad to hear of his passing, and odd. I must say that I am a page poet, but I believe in the performance of it and I am often disappointed when I go to poetry readings because they are just so dull. And the poets aren’t even good readers of their own work most of the time. It’s as if they believe that it’s part of the deal to stand up there and act as if they don’t care how it’s received. That to put any work into the performance would be degrading for them. It’s kind of weird. I would like to see page poet’s put a little more work into their readings, for after all shouldn’t a poet be able to read their work like no other?

    He did some of his Michael Jackson stuff which was just not my cup of tea. But I could tell there was talent there. But then he picked up a guitar and played simply while he sang one of Emily Dickinson’s poems and it floored me. I have tried repeatedly to get into Emily Dickinson but I find it difficult. Putting her words to music made it much more accessible to me. I sometimes still get the lines stuck in my head.

    It’s all I have to bring today

    It’s all I have to bring today –
    This, and my heart beside –
    This, and my heart, and all the fields –
    And all the meadows wide –
    Be sure you count – should I forget
    Some one the sum could tell –
    This, and my heart, and all the Bees
    Which in the Clover dwell.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 1, 2011 10:01 am

      Well said, supersecretme. Al the arts are one, in that they all express the same creative impulse, and we do well to learn from one another. Page poets can definitely learn from performance poets. And not only in the craft of performance, but also in the way that a poem reads on the page, the way a poem carries and is carried along by its own internal music. Turning Emily Dickinson’s poems into musical pieces was a stroke of genius. I’m sorry he did not live long enough to make an entire album out of them. He will be missed. We soldier on.

  4. Tod Caviness permalink
    August 3, 2011 2:57 pm

    I had the good fortune to see Blair and chat with him on his couple of trips through Orlando. Classiest act in slam, or performance poetry in general. His was one of those rare talents where there was no stage “persona” – just a magnification of his generous, good-humored self. He’ll definitely be missed.


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