Words for Words
Spoken-word artists on their art form, the National Poetry Slam, and one another
The National Poetry Slam overtakes Austin starting Aug. 7 at venues all over town (see the schedule, p.42, for times, dates, and venue info). The Paramount Theatre hosts the finals in the individual (Aug. 10) and team (Aug. 11) categories. Purchase tickets for the finals at the Paramount box office or at www.gettix.net. For more information, see www.nps2007.com.
Karyna McGlynnAge: 29
Representing: Ann Arbor, Mich.
National Poetry Slams attended: six
Despite the fact that I moved away seven years ago, Austin still spells S-L-A-M in snazzy script across my soul (dear God, that was a lot of alliteration). Austin is where I first acquired my fledgling slam wings at the Electric Lounge back in the Nineties. Those were exciting years because nobody had quite figured anything out in terms of "formula." We were pulling poems out of our pants every week, like, "How do y'all like me now?" So many amazing voices came out of that scene: Genevieve Van Cleve, Ragan Fox, Ernie Cline, Andy Buck, Wammo, Susan B.A. Somers-Willett, to name a few. But the Austin slam continues to amaze me. The recipe for success is pretty simple: Take the independent Texas spirit, stir in Austin's lefty leanings, sprinkle with some English degrees, shake well inside an anachronistic little gem like Ego's, and out pours a fine slam cocktail not to be trifled with, both fierce and funny. There's a reason nationals have been held in Austin three times in the last decade.
Competing against Austin as a member of another team is pleasingly surreal. My loyalties are split. On the one hand, I feel pressure to perform in peak condition. It's a bit like returning to your parents' house after living abroad and trying to impress them with your newfound worldliness -- doing matutinal tai chi in the front yard, peppering conversations with words like "schadenfreude" and "esprit d'escalier!" On the other hand, my hometown pride dictates Austin kick everybody's asses ... including mine.
Christian DrakeAge: 25
Representing: Berkeley, Calif.
National Poetry Slams attended: three
I don't watch sports. I gave up on sports for the same reason most nerdy, artistic kids do -- they're bad at them -- but also because I always took the competition too much to heart. In Little League, I cried every time I struck out, and I struck out every time, except when they intentionally walked me, so I wouldn't cry again. To keep my tantrums at bay and my pride intact, I grew up avoiding everything competitive. I painted. I acted in plays. I made music. I wrote poetry. Because how could you ever be competitive with poetry?
Slam is a sport. I mean, if people can call poker a sport, then slam is a sport. Like baseball wonks, we track statistics and debate the game's rules down to the minutia. Like sprinters, we time ourselves with stopwatches over and over until perfection. Like soccer players, we run drills, talk in terms of team positions, and formulate complicated strategies. Like figure skaters, we're judged on an arbitrary point system where we're rewarded for flashy moves and silly costumes. And like cyclists, we're pretty much all doing drugs.
But like any sport, we're in it for the moment of transcendence, when a performance, a word, a perfectly placed pause cuts through the pressure and the only appropriate word seems to be "miracle." Slam has its versions of "3-2, bases loaded," its Hail Mary passes, its three-point shots at the buzzer, and, yes, its Bill Bucknerian blunders. For poets like me, who never gave up our impulse to fight, this is our World Series. Only here, when you lose, it's considered okay to cry.
Adriana RamirezAge: 23
Representing: Pittsburgh (sort of)
National Poetry Slams attended: four
Austin 2007 will be the fourth National Poetry Slam I've attended as a slam poet. This past April, I earned a spot on Team Pittsburgh, ostensibly Austin-bound. Two weeks later, the rest of my team decided against attending the competition. Now, as the only member of the Steel City Squad, I will instead serve as an emcee, a bout manager, co-host of a daytime event, and a noncompeting poet.
Not all the action happens in competition, though, and that's part of why I'm still committed to attend. Once, during the Collegiate NPS in 2005, I performed a duet not onstage but on the street in West Chester, Pa. Pedestrians who had never heard a slam poem, much less a bilingual piece about women and war, sat down on cold concrete and listened. We connected. Moments like that define slam for me: the connection between a poet and audience members. I'm lucky to have been both.
When I think of the lines that made me gasp or ideas that I filed away for later thought, the performers whose hands I couldn't wait to shake -- to tell that I really listened, that they somehow managed to shake up my notions a bit -- I know I don't really need a team to feel that energy. I just need to be here, at the largest gathering of performance and poetic talent in the country. It's an addiction I'll never fight.
Joel ChmaraAge: 33
Representing: Chicago-Green Mill
National Poetry Slams attended: six
I competed at my first slam with two lousy poems and got hooked. My early pieces were about Pop-Tarts and unicorn erotica. Apparently, there was an audience for that gold.
I started a show down in Central Illinois during graduate school. Our scene quickly developed into a close-knit nerd family. We liked working with one another so much, we wrote a ton of group pieces and sketches. We'd crack each other up and encourage ideas that seemed like the result of an absinthe binge in Wonka's factory. It was well-received at nationals, so we kept producing ensemble work. We were chosen to perform on the finals stage in 2004 and in group showcases after that.
I love writing group poems because you can create a cool atmosphere and represent many perspectives and talents in three minutes. It's especially fun when you're blessed with friends who click with you and make rehearsals into superawesome jam sessions of imagination.
Now I'm competing for Chicago with one of my longtime ensemble members, Robb. We still write group poems and can't wait to reveal our dork prowess in Austin. One time, Robb and I finished a poem triumphantly, then jumped off a high stage and landed at the same time. We felt like rock stars. That's teamwork, baby.
The slam has allowed me to travel around the world and meet some of my best friends, including my fiancée. I've performed in group pieces about time travel, Noam Chomsky, bad dancing, insomnia, zombies, and happy-hour secretaries. It's a rather boss culture.
Buddy WakefieldAge: 33
National Poetry Slams attended: seven
Ryler Dustin is one of my teammates. He is building us a poem at the sawmill of my vicious doubt, behind the orphanage of my voice box. It's a boat shaped like a piano, and it's gonna carry us outta here. Tara Hardy is also my teammate and one of my spoken-word heroes. She'll be on that boat, too, and it's got room for all you people. So jump in, hold the edges; this is a high-powered mutherf***er with duel fuel, intake dulcimers and a string-quartet spoiler on the back. I'm almost done. Danny Sherrard: teammate. He knows that laughter is the best medicine, so he wrapped his arms up in swing-set chains just to see if he still has funny bones. He does. They are aching now. And when the swing-set chains untie themselves from his arms, I am certain that my friend will not just point to his chest and say, "No one lives in here."
If you've never been rocked back by the presence of purpose, this community might be too soon for you. Return to your mediocrity, plug it into an amplifier, and rethink yourself. Or, go ahead, break into our prayer, because we are on fire for the answer, still catching it and releasing it, because somewhere along the fault lines lies the preposterous idea that we forgive ourselves. And this boat, this is how I know we're gonna make it. Tell me my brothers will forgive us for kicking to the surface of the sea.
[Ryler Dustin, Tara Hardy, Danny Sherrard, and Corbin Bugni are mostly responsible for the meat of this text. I completely lifted their lines to express myself herein.]
Rachel McKibbensAge: 31
Representing: New York City-louderARTS
National Poetry Slams attended: seven
In 2001, I was new to the Orange County poetry scene and overheard talk about a poetry slam starting up in Long Beach. I thought it was something new (in actuality, it had been going on for 15 years by then), so I made my way to the gay bar where the slam was being held. Although I didn't compete (I judged), I fell in love with the art form.
That year, I made my first poetry slam team and have competed ever since. The New York City louderARTS team is the seventh consecutive team I've been on. I realized a few months back that I am the only woman from that particular scene still slamming today. Most female slammers, after a few years, "graduate" from the art form, which is unfortunate, because every year, a new crop of young female poets arrives with almost no mentors to guide them.
I believe men are rewarded more for "opening up" onstage. Women are expected to be expressive, so they don't score as well. That's a bunch of bullshit. I've vowed for the past five years that I'll quit slamming the year an all-female team wins the National Poetry Slam finals and a woman finally wins the Individual World Poetry Slam. I compete within an uneven playing field, but I sure as hell don't like it. So no more of this ostrich-with-her-head-in-the-oven noise I hear so often from the ladies. It's time we step up. I ain't backin' down for no man.
Ragan FoxAge: 31
Representing: Himself (at the FameCast Final Five Slam)
National Poetry Slams attended: five
My Career in Slam Poetry in Five Acts
Act 1: Challenge
Attend a poetry reading at a place called the Electric Lounge. Write a sappy poem about indignity and identity. Clap when white poets talk about Coltrane and blues revolutions; clap when feminist poets recite lines like, "My titties aren't for you; they're for me!"
Act 2: National Poetry Slam
Attend the National Poetry Slam, and ham it up. Write rants that don't rhyme, channel poet rage -- by God, next year, you will be on the "big" stage.
Act 3: Early Retirement
Keep writing poems, but feel less need to pander to and please the sensibilities of five blood-drunk fleas in the back of a smoky poolroom.
Act 4: The Comeback
You've spent the last four years earning a Ph.D., and it's time to make a comeback. You write poems that have little to do with being gay, play with language in new ways, write concrete poems in the shape of pinecones.
Act 5: Reunion
Return in 2007; reminisce and read at a legends showcase. In 2007, you will have long forgotten the heartache; you will shake hands with men and women for whom you hold only the fondest memories. Pinecones have grown into trees with roots that strangle pain until all with which we are left are stains of happiness, friendship, and poetry. And a hangover.
Scott WoodsAge: 36
Representing: Columbus, Ohio-Writers' Block
National Poetry Slams attended: seven
Poets tend to be very anti-establishment as a tribe. That a worldwide community of them feels comfortable coming to me with their ideas, concerns, and energy because I'm the president of Poetry Slam Inc. is a compliment beyond words, and I try to honor that relationship every year.
I participate on so many levels at this event in any given year -- president, local organizer, competing poet, emcee, DJ, meeting facilitator, fireman -- that people tend to get a big-picture view of me real quick. I have the benefit of touring a lot through the year, so I'm almost never just any one thing except to people who only see me in one capacity in their hometown.
I'm proud to be an official representative of this tribe of artists, and this event gives me a lot to be proud of beyond the job. People come to these events to see art that might change their lives. Being the guy in charge of the most progressive change in poetry in more than two decades isn't a bad job to have. When you look at it like that, it's hard to be disappointed because some people don't realize that you're the guy who holds the unofficial record for longest solo poetry reading (24 hours). Not that I'm above mentioning it, of course.
Shannon LeighAge: 19
National Poetry Slams attended: three
I suppose I should say something about being one of the youngest, if not the youngest, poets coming to nationals on a team. But, thankfully, I have never found that my age matters, besides occasional logistic issues with bar-held events. I've been to NPS in the past, as an observer, and I always thought I would come on the Austin team. Things change; people move. It doesn't feel strange or bad to come back to Austin on a different team, though it feels a little bit disorienting -- after all, I'm the go-to person when my teammates want to know which hotels are closest to venues, how long the drive is cross-country, and all kinds of other minutiae I may or may not know. Nationals, to me, have always felt more like a family reunion than a competition, and maybe that helps. I'm not traveling a thousand miles to compete against my home city; I'm joining my family for a week in one of my favorite places.
I've moved away from why I slam in the past year, and NPS helps me remember that I'm in this for the surrogate family, for the community of artists who all bring their different styles, strengths, and ideas to the event. There's nothing better for inspiration than to spend a week listening to the inspired words of others. And for me, someone who has only a few strong connections to blood family, it is a chance to see all the people I consider my community, in one place, doing what we love.
Suzi SmithAge: 28
National Poetry Slams attended: one
"You brought a full suitcase for a one-night trip?"
"Are you planning on costume changes between rounds?"
"You know we can't use props in a slam, right? What on earth do you have in that thing?"
"I think he brought his whole apartment!"
And so begins Team SlamNuba's first road trip to a regional poetry slam in Omaha, Neb. Four months after the February slam-off, we had all spent enough time together to tease like siblings, and we were elated at our first opportunity to share our poetry outside of Denver.
From the first rehearsal, ideas for new writing were exploding forward from all fronts. We talked about our inspiration; we talked about why we write and why we slam; we talked about the opportunities and challenges on the road ahead. Panama Soweto and Bianca Mikahn (coach) were both members of the 2006 National Poetry Slam championship team from Denver, and they were preparing the rest of us for what might be in store.
The poets faithfully brought their best work to slam practice. Week after week, often several times a week, we rehearsed into the wee hours. Editing, timing, choreography, inflection, posture, volume were all discussed and collectively pieced together.
We were all smiles leaving our first regional competition with the win. Bobby LeFebre held the highest score of the night with a 29.9, and this, his first slam outside of Denver. Our team trophy was a red cowboy hat, which was promptly placed upon his head by his teammates. We hugged. We danced. We began preparing for the next slam.