Mayhem Poets Tour the World, but Their Legacy Stays on Campus

Mayhem Poets Tour the World, but Their Legacy Stays on Campus

The poets left their mark at Rutgers in the form of the Verbal Mayhem Poetry Collective and the university's first slam poetry team
Mayhem Poets Tour the World, but Their Legacy Stays on Campus

Credit: Courtesy of Mayhem Poets
The Mayhem Poets perform internationally. From left, Kyle Sutton, Mason Granger, and Scott Tarazevits.

As Rutgers students 12 years ago, the Mayhem Poets went everywhere they could to share their poems: schools, prisons, rap battles, frat parties, karoake nights.

 “It was almost like we were the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Poetry, spreading our message all over,’’ says Kyle Sutton a.k.a “Kyle Rapps,’’ the group’s spokesman.

 Since then, Sutton and fellow poets Scott Tarazevits and Mason Granger have performed on stages from Broadway to Liberia and won a Microsoft grant in 2007 to open their own poetry venue in New York City. 

The weekly open mic showcase they started on campus a more than a decade ago -- called Verbal Mayhem -- still exists. Providing a platform for poets, emcees, singers and other artists to hone their craft and network, its held every Wednesday  at Murray Hall on the College Avenue Campus.

The Mayhem trio are “spoken word” poets, who work in a genre that’s created to be performed rather than read and was influenced by both beat generation poetry and hip hop  “It’s a musical meets a rap show meets off-Broadway meets underground theater,’’ explains Sutton, who is also a rapper who  has worked with artists like Talib Kweli.

The Mayhem trio are 'spoken word' poets who work in a genre created to be performed rather than read and was influenced by both beat generation poetry and hip hop.

But as a Mayhem Poet,  Sutton’s mission is to convince audiences, especially students, that poetry is can be more than antique rhymes on a page.

 “Poetry can be enjoyable, it can be fun,’’ says Sutton, who grew up in Princeton. “We want kids to learn the power of words, the power of personal expression, and we want to be able to challenge them to think outside the box.’’

When Sutton was 17, he went to his first spoken word show and was inspired to try  the form himself. “It  spoke to me,’’ he says. “I was young, angry and dealing with a lot of coming of age issues. It had humor, doses of reality and great language.’’

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The concept of the group was born a decade ago at an open mic spot in New Brunswick. 

He met Tarazevits in the early 2000’s at a New Brunswick open mic spot. Later, Granger joined them and they began touring locally.

 “I loved Rutgers,’’ says Sutton. “It was a great place, not only academically but there were so many extracurricular events on and around campus, a lot of poetry events, hip hop events. We’d crash places, just show up. and do poems.’’ 

None of the Mayhem Poets were English majors or had taken any poetry writing courses when they began. Sutton majored in Spanish, while Tarazevits was a theater major and Granger was interested in psychology.

 But Sutton’s passion for spoken word led to a greater interest in traditional literature.  He wound up taking poetry courses at Rutgers, where he read the work of 17th-century poet John Milton and decided to major in Spanish after reading the poems of Pablo Neruda. 

After graduation, Verbal Mayhem stuck together and gained national exposure in 2007 when they won a Microsoft competition for the best small business in America. With the $100,000 award, they opened Slam Chops, an open mic venue in New York’s Bowery district. It lasted two years but faltered after budget cuts in the New York school system depleted the amount of students booked to see educational shows at the center.

They decided to focus on touring. The group continues to be popular performers--they’ll be at New Brunswick’s State Theatre next month -- and have gone overseas to promote the benefits of poetry.

 In Liberia recently, they held workshops for  former child soldiers who were able to talk about their experiences through poetry. “The Poets left their mark at Rutgers in the form of the Verbal Mayhem Poetry Collective, which hosts open mics and produced the first Rutgers Youth College slam poetry team.

The collective also arranged the first Rutgers National Poetry Month Opening Ceremony last year, featuring Philadelphia Poet Laureate Sonia Sanchez.

Sean Battle, last year’s president of the club and an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at Rutgers-Newark, says a Mayhem Poets performance was his gateway into the world of spoken word. “They along, with many other poets introduced me to what the Jersey poetry scene has to offer,’’ he says. “I owe that space such much as a poet, and also as a person.’’