Spoken word artist and National Poetry Slam champion Jamie DeWolf is best known locally for hosting his over-the-top, raw and raucous monthly all-ages Tourettes Without Regrets open mic shows. He brings that same inimitable, avant-garde style to everything he does—poetry, playwriting, performance and his latest endeavor, filmmaking, with Ricochet, an eight-minute crime caper about the Columbine shootings in reverse, screening soon. The great-grandson of L. Ron Hubbard, DeWolf, 30, is a radical redheaded whirling dervish behind the mic who’ll literally do anything for a laugh—the cruder and ruder the better. In between his own shows and gigs with the Suicide Kings (doing the play in verse, In Spite of Everything
), DeWolf teaches poetry and writing to Bay Area kids, encouraging them to express themselves boldly, a marked contrast to the censorship he experienced as a young suicidal social misfit growing up in Benicia and Vallejo. Why did you start Tourettes Without Regrets?
I actually did it as a double form of revenge. I couldn’t read anywhere in my hometown. They would kick me out, because of pieces about self-mutilation. I didn’t really like the vibe of poetry and open mics then. I just couldn’t believe how stale they were. It’s supposed to be hot expression, people taking the straightjacket off and busting their skills, and that didn’t exist. I vowed—swore revenge—I would make a show that would be a thwart-them-all kind of thing.That’s what happened, isn’t it?
Exactly. It’s the biggest slam in the Bay Area, the longest-running freestyle battle. And it certainly has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.
How do you describe Tourettes?
It’s like a Molotov cocktail. It’s an equal-parts mixture of some heinous shocking visual act, some horrible contest. And they’ve been all over the place—me running with snails on my crotch and a guy with worms, people on fire. We’ve pulled pranks on the audience where I’ve had whole stage fights with poets. Sometimes participants are plants. Can one assume that every prank has a plant?
No, hell no. That girl who drank urine at the last one—she really drank urine. The only time I actually ever use plants is to expedite the time of getting someone I know will just do it. Or I tell someone, hey, I need you for a contest and I won’t tell them what the contest is. But I know they’ll be like, ‘I’ll do anything for a laugh.’ Really anything. So it’s all about the response?
The great thing about shock is that it has an immediate visceral reaction. I’m making people, their bodies, convulse with revulsion, laughter, and it has an immediate, visceral reaction. And I like that. I like rocking a crowd. When they leave a Tourettes, they feel completely spanked; they’ve been screaming and hooting and hollering; it’s very interactive. There’s also nationally acclaimed slam poets coming through who are amazing performers.
What do you call all that?
Psychotic vaudeville. It’s taking highbrow and lowbrow and making them collide in this demolition derby. I enjoy that contrast because, the fact is, that’s what people are going to remember. They’ll remember a couple of really amazing performances that moved them or just were mind-blowing, and then they’ll remember some extreme, shocking, mad act. You’re pretty wild as an emcee. Are you on anything when you perform, other than, say, those Red Headed Sluts I saw you downing at Merchants Saloon?
No. Actually, I tested out the whole drunken performing, performing while high, performing while drunk. The rule I’ve discovered is that if you’re drunk, you always think you are performing better than you actually are.
Did it take you awhile to learn that lesson?
A good two years, I would say. I continuously tested the theory. Do you ever get stage fright?
I get contextual stage fright. People are more scared of public speaking than they are of death actually in this country. It’s like public speaking and spiders. Those are the big two. It turns on your adrenaline. Your adrenaline is going to pump no matter what. You just need to harness it. I’m probably more relaxed than most, because I’ve done it so many times. Performing my own work, I’m gonna get more nervous. I’m doing memorized work. I don’t want to trip over my own words. I don’t have a lot of escapes. Hosting I can just do.
How much of you is that guy on the stage?
I’m pretty wacky. I’m definitely cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, but I still gotta pay my rent and go to the DMV like everybody else. I can’t maintain that mania every day, day in and day out, or I would explode. Tourettes is just more of an exaggerated version of how I am when I’m relaxed and cracking jokes. I am that guy every day, day in and day out. At the same time, my root of getting in this, period, was I was working on a suicide note and was all slashed up and everything else. I definitely got into slams as a real confessional exorcism. And now I’m a lot more comfortable in sharing those worlds, being raw and confessional and brutal.
And what has that performing done for you?
It has helped me survive. Once you articulate something, you are in a way objectifying it, which is what needs to happen. It’s a cheap form of psychiatry. You also find like minds when people come up and respond to you, so you don’t feel as isolated. The process of really embodying it and writing it out and working through it through your words—you are giving therapy to yourself. I don’t really view what I do all that different than a lot of psychiatry. And it’s a lot cheaper, and someone might buy me a beer afterward.You say you were a disturbed, violent youth. Are you still?
I’m a lot saner than I was then. I also didn’t really have art as an outlet. That’s what the play is about, survival through art. [Columbine’s]
Eric [Harris] and Dylan [Klebold] weren’t very creative. They weren’t able to express themselves in any passionate way or form that would allow them to express that rage, that anger. I was haunted they decided to end themselves in high school; whereas, if they would have just graduated, I’m sure it would have all brushed away.Is there some message you’d like for your own students to come away with?
What you say is important—it doesn’t matter how ugly, how brutal, how vicious. If you’ve gotta say it, you’ve gotta say it.On suicide, your attitude has changed, but you definitely contemplated it, right?
Oh, yeah. I never really attempted suicide, because I always scorned those who did. But absolutely. For a good, large chunk of my life, I was always balancing on the razor’s edge and debating it. Now I’m old enough that I know I’m going to die soon anyway, so why speed it up? The secret to me is—and I forget it constantly—I stay busy, I keep on my projects and keep moving forward. I keep throwing the demons meat, so that way I can keep running past them.
—By Judith M. Gallman
—Photography by Jan Stürman