Soldier Plays Active Role in Poetry Circuit

FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Not many people can find poetry in a bottle of pop.

Sgt. Marshall Pampkin did, but is at a loss to fully explain what motivated him to put pen to paper that day.

"I was bored," he said. "I was looking at the carbonation and the light hit the bottle of Dr. Pepper in a certain way."

He doesn't waste any breath trying to justify the poem. It was a lark, a moment that's come and gone, and is entirely beside the point he is now trying to make: That poetry is a lot of things, but it shouldn't be a celebration of formality.

"Poetry isn't stuffy old men confident in their supreme understanding of A-B pentameter and the difference between selective verse and prose," he said. "It's harkening back to the days of sitting around the fire and listening to our shaman tell stories."

Pampkin, the assistant strength manager for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 165th Infantry Brigade, is active in Columbia's poetry movement. Performing under the name Northstar, he's especially passionate about the efforts of one promoter to unite local performance artists as a single community.

"The Columbia scene is fractured, to be blunt," he said. "Until this past fall I've been disconnected from the Columbia scene since 2009, the last time I was (on temporary duty) here. What I noticed then were one or two venues that were very friendly and very open. Now, there are a couple of venues and they're all open, but everyone has their niche. They welcome others, but they don't actively seek anything new."

Mind Gravy is an exception, he said. The open microphone event takes place weekly at Drip, a coffee shop located at Five Points. Poets, writers and musicians of all stripes are encouraged to attend and perform.

"My venue is, on purpose, very diverse," said Mind Gravy promoter Al Black. "I don't like the segregation that goes on in most art forms. If you go to a slam poetry event, it's slam poetry. If you go to a page poetry event, it was just page poetry. I've purposely stirred things up."

Pampkin said the venue is meant to inspire creativity, even when the product is a little messy.

"If you're a country, folk or Americana musician, I challenge you to do something with a hip-hop artist," he said. "Try it. You might not come away with any new material, but you might have some fun and make some new connections. That's what we're doing."

Pampkin said the goal is not so much to break down the walls between different artistic mediums as much as it is to bring together different poetry styles. It is hard enough to get country musicians and beat poets into the same room, but it is also a challenge to bring together poets of differing interests, he said.

"You have poets that go to poetry readings and read poetry, and you have performance poets. That's not to say that either is more or less talented," he said. "There are some who think one is more pretentious than the other, but no ... they can both be equally pretentious. The performance poet can be a bit more melodramatic, a bit more theatrical, but like some actors and rock stars, they enjoy connecting with the crowd."

"It's very racially mixed, style mixed and age mixed," Black said of Mind Gravy. "Northstar stepped right in and people realized he knows what he's doing. He's not just there because he likes to get up there and do his thing, but he's there for the art, too. It isn't just about what the performers, themselves, are doing ... it's about everybody that's participating."

Pampkin discovered poetry around the time that many Americans do, during his high school years.

"My earliest inspirations were Shakespeare, Poe and Pearl Jam," he said with a laugh. "At the time I started writing, the Pearl Jam album, 'Ten,' had just come out. As I've gone on, my influences have changed. I was heavily influenced by Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac. I go through periods where I'll go back and reread Kerouac's 'On the Road' and 'Dharma Bums.' These days, a lot of what I write is more about storytelling, and I blame it on (Kerouac.)"

The performance element of his poetry was forced on him during a visit to a coffee shop near Fort Bragg.

"A friend literally called me out in front of a crowd. He said, 'I have a friend who writes, but he's too chicken to get up here,'" he said. "Nineteen-year-old me wasn't going to have that. I'd been going with him for weeks to this open mic, but he never knew I wrote poetry. Then he saw that notebook in my hand and called me out. I got up there, and was so nervous I was shaking. But it was cathartic. It was great release, and it was a bit of a rush to get in front of the crowd."

Pampkin will be participating in an up-coming poetry event on Fort Jackson. The BOSS Open Mic/Poetry Slam is set for 6 p.m., Feb. 1 at Heise Pond, Alpine Lodge.

"Because of network restrictions we won't be able to live stream it, but we're going to record it and take some of the best clips and put them online," he said. "I want to use that to drum up interest and support, not just for my own CD, but for any other poets out there."

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