Slamming Toward August

I arrived in Austin in 1991, a sometime poet too paralyzed by a sudden, devastating case of stage fright to give public readings. Odd circumstances, though, and a challenge from a friend, pushed me. I stumbled, in 1992, into a poetry slam at the High Time Tea Bar and Brain Gym (at the time located on Congress Avenue) and choked through a few pieces. Afterwards, some guy with long hair and a big mouth (I say this kindly) approached me. "That was great," he said. And, "You should come out again." I now know the man speaking was Wammo. At the time, I had no idea who he was or what he represented.

But slowly, on Wammo's advice, I moved deeper into the slam scene, a world that had been foreign to me and much of the world, since it was still in its adolescence at the time. Now, six years into my own experience, I have moved from avid slammer to avid observer. The slam has grown - both locally and nationally - and it has moved over the years, from High Time to Emo's to its current home, The Electric Lounge.

This August, Austin will host the National Poetry Slam. Not to suggest that prior Austin national teams have been anything less than rabid/avid as they've performed elsewhere, but holding the event here has upped the ante supremely. Since January, vicious-yet-loving contests of the spoken word have occurred weekly (Tuesday nights) to determine finalists for the 1998 Austin Poetry Slam-Off, a competition that determines which four Austin poets will win slots on the national team.

Among the competitors on May 28 will be the aforementioned Wammo, as well as Ernie Cline, Genevieve Van Cleve, Susan B. Anthony Somers-Willet, Jeff Knight, Sonya Feher, Karyna McGlynn, Sara Winn, and Tony Gallucci, plus whoever wins the weekly slams up until this final event. The top four finishers will then spend the next two and a half months polishing individual pieces as well as ensemble works which, as displayed in Slam Nation (a documentary about the slam scene that premiered at SXSW 98) are stunning, moving, and downright flabbergasting to the listener. In addition, the top finalist will get his/her name engraved on the permanent traveling slam trophy, a giant golden hot dog.

The stage fright I speak of compares not to what these finalists will be feeling as they take the stage at the Electric Lounge. Phil West, who I've had the honor of watching/listening to for years (and who will co-host the slam-off with Mike Henry and co-direct the National Poetry Slam with same) recalls - despite his national ranking and award-winning performances - just how hard it remains to play for the hometeam crowd. "Last year, when I slammed [in Austin, for a slot on the nationals], Danny Solis called me from Albuquerque the morning of the slam and told me I should take a bath or something, because knowing me, I was liable to peak by 11 in the morning. By mid-afternoon, I valiantly tried to nap and ended up curled in a fetal ball in the bed, overcome with tension, and ended up reading better than I ever had in my life that night. Better, in fact, than I read at Nationals - probably a combination of having to get myself up for such intense competition yet having the familiarity of the Lounge stage, the audience, and Austin as support." - Spike Gillespie

The 1998 Austin Poetry Slam-Off will be held on Thursday, May 28, at the Electric Lounge, standard Austin slam time, which we say is 8:30pm. Cover charge is $5. Door proceeds go to pay the entry fee for the Austin team's National Slam entry. $50 will be awarded to the top poet.

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