Slam, Bam, Thank You, Ma'am

Handicapping the Slam Team Poets

The Austin Slam Team: Clockwise are Wammo, Susan B. A. Somers-Willet, Phil West nad Genevieve Van Cleve

This may shock the culturati, but mention "the Slam" outside its circle of participants and you're likely to draw a question mark: What's a Slam? That's easy. It's a group of poets competing, usually for cash, with three-minute performances of their works. Judges score Olympic-style, with decimals, so a neo-Wasteland thrillingly intoned gets a 9.8, and the latest Hallmark drivel, muttered into the microphone, gets a 5 or a 6. In individual cities, from Tallahassee to Portland, there's a slam season (roughly September to May) which culminates in a final showdown, which neccessitates selection of a four-person slam team to represent the locals at a nationwide tournament.

Definitions are easy. The rest is mired in ambiguity. "I don't know," a man told me at Austin's Citywide SuperSlam. "I'm not sure I like a poetry reading that forces you to be judgmental." But that's the best thing -- no more suffering in silence through crap. If it's crappy, give it a crappy score. That sounds arch, but not to worry; no one really draws a bomb. At the last contest I attended, it was the judges who got hissed and cajoled, not the contestants. (I was labeled the "Russian judge.")

Whether you love it, hate it, or have no idea, the Slam looks like it's here to stay. It's 12 years old nationwide, and our fair city is fielding its third team, headed to the Nationals Finals in Bridgeport, Connecticut at summer's end. In August of 1998, Austin will play host to the Nationals, so it's high time this dude ranch of a town figured out the score. Austin also placed in the top 20 during both our initial outings, and Wammo -- who effectively brought the art/sport to Austin -- was runner-up in the individual competition for 1995.

This year's Austin Team carries some surprises. It's the first time we've had more than one woman in the lineup -- Genevieve Van Cleve, returning from '95, and Susan B.A. Somers-Willett. The Dallas Team is all male, meaning that the only female voices from Texas will hail from Austin. It's also remarkable that Wammo, once the center and powerhouse of local teams, is now an ensemble player, a link in a chain comprised of Phil West's rapid-fire delivery, Van Cleve's expressive range, and the restrained intensity of Somers-Willett.

In the spirit of Slam, I've decided to score this year's team members, rating their chances individually and as a group to bring home Austin's first national poetry championship. There's not a Las Vegas line on Slam yet, but who knows -- pay attention, West Campus! -- this could be a growth industry for gamblers weary of the same old ball and chain.

Genevieve Van Cleve: She has a degree in Political Science, and until a few weeks ago was a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry. You'd never guess it when she assaults the microphone. She can jam with the boys, but they won't forget she's a grrrl. Van Cleve is the foundation for this team. Her material ranges from "Geek Love," a "Welcome to the Dollhouse" monologue about milk spurting through her nose and a man only a dork could desire, to a confessional piece about her alcoholic father that seared even the most cynical listener at the SuperSlam. When she's funny, she's very funny; when she's serious, she's never self-righteous. She's a veteran who doesn't get flustered when she loses her place or forgets a line.

Score: 9.8 A Contender

Wammo: He's got local-legend credentials: a KNCC disk jockey when alternative was a real word; scrubboard player for the Asylum Street Spankers, the coolest band in Austin; a spoken-word CD last fall from Mouth Almighty Records. If anyone ever really "strode" onto stage, it's this guy. His set-pieces create a little world, like "Hell is a Disco," wherein the damned sway marathon-style through eternity to the strains of "I'll Stop the World and Dance with You." My favorite line from a Wammo poem: the redneck preaching the virtues of vinyl LPs: "I still put needles in my music, baby." Wammo is a power-hitter, but he needs some range. Slam poems don't have that long a shelf-life, so judges who can't help but remember the big guy will be wanting to hear something fresh.

Score: 9.5 Smarter Than He Lets On

Susan B.A. Somers-Willett: Proves that even Slam poets love the name-chain. She's a wild card, speaks softly, and carries a big political stick. Somers-Willett studies English at UT and her poems clearly show that background. "Dedications for the 8th Ward Clinic" details the struggles of women who took all they could stand, and then took some more. Her strength: following the truck-pull aesthetics of a Wammo, these quiet, personal revelations of sexual abuse and domestic upheaval bring a welcome contrast. Remember, Anne Sexton gained a lot of her fame fronting a jazz combo with "Her Kind." On the other hand, I worry that a national audience might not be so touched; it could come off as Jenny Jones in 300 words or less. Somers-Willett will play strongest by lending counterpoint and bringing a female voice to the group pieces which all four members play together.

Score: 9 Conscience and Control

Phil West: He's the most punk of the quartet, frenetic and breathy, working so hard he'll wear you out. West has a way of jutting his chin upward into the mike that could be cocky or just a stretch. He deals in verbal acrobatics. In "What I've Been Doing Since My High School Graduation," West dons an array of identities, from gambler to counter-culture hero to a sex change-yielding Barbara, the world's baddest-ass secretary. The only pauses bring on the refrain: "I was Siegfried, I was Roy, I was Siegfried, I was Roy." He's got a handle on the Eighties nostalgia and hipster commercialism that suffuses the Slam. "Parade," for example, rants about having to eat goddam MagicShapes cereal from the generic shelf when what we really want is Lucky Charms -- the real thing? This woebegone Seattle Sonics fan serves as this Team's ball handler: quick, savvy, the one to go to in a pinch.

Score: 9.5 Nervous Energy

The combined scores give our Team an average of 9.45. Phil West says, "This team's gonna win," but he says that every year. Don't take my word, or his, for it. The Slam Team 1997 will be out and about, doing fundraisers and running trials, throughout what's promising to be an excellent Austin summer. Check 'em out. Slam 'em.

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