Gin And Condoms Everywhere

Memoirs of a Slam Poet

photograph by Bruce Dye

The National Poetry Slam is basically a giant carnival of sin and salvation. It brings out the best and worst in the people involved. I've seen a room of 300-plus people pour their hearts out to a poet frozen on stage, stuck between lines, then leap to their feet and scream when he finally finished the piece. I've seen poets reciting nightmare tales of child abuse, rape, and violence with tears streaming down their faces only to be consoled by competitors from opposing teams. I've seen old friends almost kill each other in a drunken brawl. I've seen a poet passed out on the floor with a beer on one side of his head, a bong on the other and a collection of Octavio Paz laid across his chest. I've seen poets so eager to win at any cost they are willing to cheat to do so. I've seen teams howling with laughter, knowing full well that the poet onstage making the audience crack up is putting them out of the running. I've seen poets from all over the world, some clothed, some naked, jump into an indoor hotel swimming pool, much to the chagrin of the management. I've seen intellectual and emotional brilliance fueled by a mixture of anticipation, fear, anger, joy, jealousy, bliss, sex, booze, and the love of the spoken word.

When I took second place in the individual competition in '95, I came bounding out onto the stage in cowboy hat and boots, grabbed the trophy and screamed "Texas! Motherfuckers!" to the audience. The audience cheered back except for one heckler, who screamed "Go back to the trailer park!" With this, an entire row of poets compiled by the Austin and Dallas teams plus a few friends, jumped up, spun around toward the heckler and yelled "Fuck you!" Which in turn got another burst of applause.

Another great moment occurred about two weeks ago, the David Letterman show called the director of the documentary Slam Nation and asked him if he could get the '96 Austin team (Hilary Thomas, Phil West, Danny Solis, Coach Mike Henry, and myself) to perform our group piece, "Tube" on the show. Those of you who have seen the film know that the Austin team took a royal skewering from the judges that year, so it meant a lot when the Letterman show chose our poem over all the other poems in the film.

The slam seems to break down a lot of social barriers as well. Poets from all walks of life, different races, religions, political leanings, and sexual preferences come together (sometimes literally) to exchange ideas and other things. I'll never forget when a hard-core lesbian poet and I busted each other for checking out the same woman's ass. We both burst out laughing and ended up becoming great friends. Or the time I sat in a sports bar in Connecticut knocking back Irish whiskey and screaming Jerky Boys' lines with a 300-pound African-American poet from Los Angeles. A bunch of locals in softball jerseys sat gaping-mouthed, wondering what was up with the cracker and the black dude, yelling at each other, Afro to cowboy hat, in fake New York accents and howling with laughter.

Of course it's not all fun and games. I learned a big life lesson in Portland when I pulled our team out from behind by performing "A Real Gone Guy." In the climax of that piece, I say the words "I'm a rebel." Earlier in the bout, a woman had read a poem about what the rebel flag meant to blacks in the South. She was extremely upset with me and it took a long time for me to explain to her that I meant rebel as in "Rebel Without a Cause," without any sort of Johnny Reb connotation. It's amazing how one word can change the outcome of a situation.

photograph by Bruce Dye

Let's talk about the horns for a minute. The Austin team has always strapped a pair of longhorns to the front end of its team car. This is a traditional ritual that requires much drinking and bravado from its participants. These horns have been all over the country and always provide a "Texas in the house" vibe whereever we go. When the '95 team pulled up to the finals in Ann Arbor, in our rented silver Lincoln Town Car, with the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly pouring out of our stereo, the horns were the icing on the cake.

After the final bout there is always a huge bash. Imagine hundreds of extroverts from all over the country, settling in to raise hell after the tension is gone. In Connecticut this party almost didn't happen when the organizers decided to make it BYOB, but the Austin team, I am proud to say, saved the day by taking up a collection and providing trashcans full of beer. At that same party, a woman had her purse stolen and in the 20 it took to catch the thief, enough money had already been collected to fly her back to her hometown. I guess what I'm trying to say is that although this is a serious competition where amazing minds come to do battle, it is also a gathering of friends ready to exchange ideas. A yearly high school reunion of sorts where veterans spin tales, neophytes get their slam cherries popped, and everyone has a big old time.

At the end of the show four or five of us bask in the glory, the rest of us lick our wounds, we put our differences aside and dance our asses off, already thinking about next year.

Ex-Austin slam teamster emeritus Wammo, like Shappy, will be easy to find at the many Slam Team events.

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