Do They Dare?

Austin Team Portland-Bound for the National Poetry Slam

It's a perfect Slam Team Summer: MTV gears up to rock the vote, KISS stages a reunion tour, and Atlanta burns the Olympic torch. In the absence of minor league baseball, Austin needs some locals to cheer for, and slam poetry is both more exciting and participatory than a bunch of wannabes spitting black and swinging sticks. The sports metaphor works: During the regular season, individual poets compete against one another in The Slam, with each performance rated Olympic-style (1 to 10, with decimal shading) by judges plucked from the audience. For the National Slam, cities like Austin hold a showdown contest that narrows the season winners to four fearless strutters who are dubbed The Team.

This may have passed a lot of people by, but Austin's inaugural team made a fine showing in last year's Nationals at Ann Arbor, Michigan, placing 13th in a field of 27. And our team captain, known only as Wammo, placed 2nd in the individual competition, missing the title by just 0.3 of a point. You might expect a man called Wammo to take little solace in running an admirable second, and you'd be right. He has assured four-time champion Patricia Smith that he is bent on victory.

Austin's Slam Team for 1996 -- Wammo and Phil West returning from last year, joined by Danny Solis and Hillary Thomas -- is working Cinderella-like for the Nationals in Portland, Oregon, happening August 21-24. Three times a week they rehearse for several hours, running lines, blocking their movements, coordinating cues, and demanding more from even the most fiery performance. They're a volatile blend of resilience, laughter, and a bubbling energy always on the edge of chaos. Wammo walks like a linebacker and projects a character that can bounce from redneck to rockgod to Rimbaud without stopping for breath or slacking the beat. Danny Solis sports dreadlocks past his shoulders and a penchant for sleeveless, black T-shirts. He's the Austin ringer, having worked on National championship teams in Boston and Asheville, North Carolina. When he's wearing his Terminator shades he looks like a Hispanic Marcus Garvey, here to wreak vengeance on an unjust world; but indoors for the interview, Danny's glasses come off and his round eyes seem tender, merely cautious as opposed to pissed. Hillary Thomas is the only woman on the team. But like her testosterone cohorts she makes a character out of contradiction. On the one hand, she's the poet of fire, Athena-Eros bursting in a Shelleyan dream, though she's also a quiet playground girl, familiarly pretty, someone who would share her potato chips with the shy kid. Phil West talks faster than the Federal Express guy, and rakes at his monk-short hair in between delirious spurts of conversation. He's probably the kid with whom Hillary shared her chips.

Yes, the slam is fast and furious, a stack of Marshall-size metaphors cranked to 11. But, inquisitive minds wonder, Is It Art? Sounds more like Monday Night Football than the Rhymer's Club. Solis, who lists Anne Sexton and Charles Bukowski as role models, suggests this attitude betrays an ignorance not only of sports, but of poetry, too. "You don't think the arts are competitive? Go try to get published in even a mid-level journal, much less American Poetry Review or Poetry or The New Yorker. It doesn't matter whether it's drama, music, painting -- people are trying to get their work into shows, into exhibits. These are competitions. Anybody who thinks they're not is just a dilettante."

There's supposed to be a rivalry between slammers and so-called academic poets. The slam is populist and exciting, academics tight-mouthed and priggish. Unsurprisingly, whatever distance exists between the two camps has been overdrawn. Early versions of the Chicago Slam in the Eighties featured academy darlings like Angela Jackson and Marvin Bell, and Bob Holman at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe says that during their first days of slamming, shows featured people impersonating Dead White Poets like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. "We had Sylvia Plath singing Skeeter Davis' `End of the World'," Holman recalls. And way back in 1979, Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman performed a set of poems dressed in boxing gear to as much acclaim as literature is likely to receive in this post-Beat America. Solis sets the question down to attitude: "Walt Whitman? He was never an academic; he was a fucking wild man! And yet he's defined 20th-century poetry." Wammo adds, "If you're gonna get up on the mike and read your stuff, you're becoming an entertainer. I don't have anything against academic poetry. There are people who have written stuff that moves me personally, and have moved people since we began to learn how to use our language. ...From the recordings I've heard of T.S. Eliot reading `Prufrock,' he'd be a slam winner. You can hear it! He's reading to the Ladies Auxiliary, and you can hear them cooing in the background."

The slam aesthetic does have its range and limitations. The anybody-goes nature of the regular season means you may encounter several works known only as "SCREAM!" Even accomplished performers can seem less concerned with making poetry matter than with a stage and a chance to prance. And with a three-minute time limit for performance, the operative word in delivery, regardless of style or subject matter, is urgency. Genevieve Van Cleve, who was on last year's team and has taken over the regular slam at the Electric Lounge, says, "Hey, the slam's a gimmick; but something special is still possible there." Like the rock anthem that inspired it, a slam poem has to get in and get out. Doesn't mean a slammer can't use those well-tried tools of irony and concentric circles of reference, only that there's no time for close reading before you're through and the next guy's wailing away.

Fact is, the slam is its own animal and academics aren't worried. David Wevill, a "professor by accident" at the University of Texas' Texas Center for Writers with several volumes of highly rendered verse to his credit, admits he doesn't know anything about the slam. "Getting at this," he says, "it's not a matter of elitism or snobbery on the one hand or street preaching on the other.... To say that poetry is one thing and not another, that's the problem." The well-worn gripes about academia -- its pretense, its monotony, its love of superhuman abstractions -- provide a good backdrop for slam poets just like the excesses of the rock industry make a good straw man for punk musicians. But whatever disdain slammers sneer at literary types, the professors simply nod and return to their Norton anthologies. There's always a Betty Sue Flowers who performs, or a Lynn Cheney decrying the barbarians, but most academics adopt a policy of tolerance through ignorance.

Besides, Hillary Thomas defines her calling in roughly the same way poets have been doing since the Romantics declared that the art was for everyone: "finding the extraordinary view of something that seems perfectly ordinary... taking the audience to a place they haven't been before and will not want to leave." Phil West sees the slam team, like most poets, "on a mission to make poetry matter... to find the universal in the everyday."

William Carlos Williams, whose long poem Paterson was lying in a chair while I talked with the slam team, would have been proud of that definition. And Dr. Williams -- birthing babies and medicating sore throats in between poems -- makes a good antecedent for a new generation looking for more than they were promised from poetry and life. Besides writing about music for the Chronicle, West works in the cardiac unit at Seton Hospital. His coworker, Greg Williams, says there is one thing that sets Phil apart from his peers in the medical scene: "His height." "Most of our discussions," Williams says, "concern the poetry of sports: We both hate the Cowboys." Hillary Thomas works by day at a local bookstore and lifestyle-center, so at least she can breathe literature and think globally if she doesn't have time to read. Wammo is an Austin-flavored Renaissance man -- he's fronted bands like O-Boyo and W.O.R.M.; is currently turning heads as the scrub player for the Asylum Street Spankers; designs posters for a variety of events; and has a CD forthcoming from Mouth Almighty Records, Fat-Headed Stranger, featuring a dream team of area artists sitting in. Danny Solis has been unemployed for the last few months, living Joe Orton-style on the dole, and doing his work. "I don't do anything else," he quips. "This is what I do." Call it an unofficial grant to the humanities.

And why not? A society that won't support its artists, as Ezra Pound sort of said, is a screwed-up society. Of course Ol' Ez never hung out at the Electric Lounge on a Sunday evening, puffing Marlboro Lights and strategizing mock rounds with competing poets while Wammo picks ticks off a dog's ears and Phil speculates that they (the team, not the ticks) have to come out fighting. After each person does a piece, the group tells the poet what they think. Here's where the close reading comes in, each person locating the lapses in rhythm, the misplaced inflection -- or, alternatively, the serendipitous turn -- of the poem they've just heard. Doing a group performance of West's "Motor Red" for the first time, the team is a little edgy. Solis says, "I feel like baggage in this piece. I think you could do it without me." The rest assure him he's necessary, and he is: Solis and Wammo mouth the roar of a roadhawg engine while West races through a paean to "the red-blooded boy on the American road" and Thomas eggs him on with sweaty sex and evangelical shouting. After three tries, they still don't quite have the piece, and there's been some dead-stop tension, but it's part of the night and they move on to other stuff.

Competitive tension has been a part of the art from the beginning, when the acknowledged patriarch of the slam, Chicago's Marc Smith, started pitting writers against one another at his open mike. These `bouts' were conducted boxing-style, and several nights supposedly deteriorated (or accelerated, depending on your view) into actual fights. The quest for the gold in Portland promises to be as tough, if only literarily violent. Particular challenges for Austin's fantastic four include Solis's old team (and last year's national champs) from Asheville. Jeff Meyers, an organizer in Portland, warns, "Three times can either be a charm or put you out. [Solis] may be the rabbit's foot or the monkey's paw," adding that Wammo has to watch "for DJ Renegade of Washington, D.C., to try and win back the title he lost last year because of time penalties." Phil West pegs several New England teams as ones to watch, adding it's foolish to ignore the big guys from New York City, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Can the young team from Austin do it? Drag the title back to Texas and avenge Wammo's upset? Van Cleve says the team has grown from 1995 when they were "virgins of the event." "This team is more serious, about fundraising and how to prepare." Mike Henry, who serves as coach and facilitating presence this year, says the team has to "have the fire, but keep the wisdom... I'm trying to remind them what they know... Hillary doesn't have to be Wammo; we got one of those. Hillary needs to be 100-percent Hillary." If they do that, Henry says, "They can go all the way. Anything less would be a disappointment." n

An Austin Poetry Slam Team Fundraiser will be held Monday, July 29, at the Shoreline Grill. The Gourds and Guy Forsyth will be featured; tickets are $10 per person.

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