SlamAmerica Bus Tour
It probably seems a little unlikely. A 33-foot midnight blue tour bus rolls into town at dusk. Through tinted glass, shadowy forms can be seen bouncing to the old-skool Seventies soundtrack that seems to leak from the spinning tires. Pulling to a stop in front of the hep nightspot, the doors yawn open with a hydraulic hiss. And 20 poets walk out.
The scene will have repeated itself in 30 consecutive episodes by the time the SlamAmerica bus finally rests on August 9th at the 2000 National Poetry Slam in Providence, R.I., finishing the monthlong odyssey that began several thousand poems ago in Seattle, Wash. Sponsored by Grand Marnier and Poetry Slam Inc., SlamAmerica is a mobile hive housing a rotating cast of the finest practitioners of performance poetry in America; sort of a rolling summer camp for slam poets.
"It's been amazing," whispers tour organizer Gary Mex Glazner, careful not to rouse the snoring wordsmith slumped in the next seat. "Each city has its own personality, and getting to bring such a fantastic mix of poets into a new vibe every night is really cool." Glazner's irrepressible energy has clearly stamped itself onto the tour, scorching the map with a breakneck new-city-every-night pace. SlamAmerica also serves as the coming-out party for Manic D Press's new anthology, Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry, which Glazner edited.
I jumped onto the bus (along with fellow Austin slammer Jason Edwards) in Phoenix. It immediately became obvious what I was in for. I've been doing this slam thing for a long time, performing in bars, coffeehouses, basements, parks, even a church once -- struggling to find audiences to hear the words I believed in. Somehow, this was different. The simple fact that this expedition was bound together into the confines of a huge, traveling womb made a difference. And the fact that somebody had actually put some dollars behind us made a difference. We felt legit, strong, indestructible. Each person on the bus had channeled their life and artistic energy into the belief that poets deserve to be treated like rock stars. Here we were, touring America, splashing words against walls and ears like so many power chords and drum solos.
An intensely creative vibe permeated the somewhat stinky, poet-scented air on the bus. We interfaced laptops, made videos, networked, and most of all, we talked into the wee Super-8 mornings about how to take this running start from SlamAmerica and keep going; how to push our art and our family to the next level. We envisioned a world where we could keep our work pure and still get paid, making a living doing poetry. Somehow it didn't seem as out of reach as before.
Each show was a flash fire as one poet spurred the next to raise the bar a little higher. There was the traditional naked hot tub party in Santa Fe, 15 of us swapping poems in the chill New Mexico night. Our favorite skit, "Yo Mama Samurai," pitted poet-warriors against each other in a lip-synched trash-talk duel. Jason and I each performed in front of our parents for the first times in our lives. My favorite moments? Had to be the preshow ritual: We'd crank the James Brown mix tape and cram the aisle, gyrating wildly, utilizing varying levels of coordination, clambering over seats and each other. Dancing like we might die tomorrow. And then the bus would pull up to the venue, we'd gather ourselves, pulses racing, and file out with heads held high. Just like rock stars.
The Austin Slam Team Send-off Party takes place on Thursday, August 3, at Gaby & Mo's (1809 Manor), beginning at 7:30pm. Proceeds help send the slam team to Providence, R.I., for the National Poetry Slam. Mike Henry was a member of the 1995 and 1999 Austin Poetry Slam teams.