It's well-documented how, after the re-unification of Germany, many of the state sports doctors in the East fled to China with their bags of performance-enhancing drugs in hand; but who knew that so many of the old East German judges ended up in Central Texas? To say there was some questionable scoring by crowd standards in the early rounds of the National Poetry Slam is putting it, well, accurately. Part of the Russian roulette that is slam poetry comes from the fact that, for each bout, the judges are selected randomly from the audience. But, across the first three nights of the competition, the frequency with which the scores from judges was incongruous with audience reaction was bewildering, almost comic.
So it was only apropos that the showcase portion (i.e., the part before the actual competition started) of the finals at the Paramount on Saturday started off with a piece about how unfair slam poetry is by its very nature and that the best poems typically finish last. What was peculiar, then, was how irrelevant the judges had made themselves Saturday night by the last rounds of the team competition.
Four-person teams representing Cleveland, Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York squared off in the finals. And by the third of the four rounds of reading, "score creep," the phenomenon that judges' scores will inevitably get higher, had gotten to the point where everything was getting 9.8s and 9.9s.
That's not to say that the material and the performances, most of which were pretty brilliant (particularly Cleveland's group piece about the numbing effects of corporate subjugation) were not deserving. They were. There was just no place up left to go. New York City had built a lead that, with every poem earning those 9.8s and 9.9s, was not going to be undone. Damn if Dallas didn't try, scoring a perfect 30 with an hysterical piece on how they would fashion themselves as superheroes - one black, one redneck, one gay - that was almost as much sketch comedy as poem. But even superheroes can't alter the absolute values assigned to numbers. Second place, Dallas. L.A. and Cleveland finished third and fourth, respectively.
What happened in the finals, though, was almost antiseptic and anticlimactic compared to what happened over the first three nights of the competition. As awesome as it was to see that many people turn out to a poetry reading - technically it was a sellout although about 200 seats sat empty in Paramount's upper balcony all night long - to see bout after bout in small and possibly legally overcrowded venues be determined by minuscule margins was like watching a heavyweight fight in a closet with a couple hundred other spectators, only instead of two combatants there were 12, and they were poets, but you get the idea.
In the smaller venues the intensity, from an audience perspective, was amplified as the impact of the slam became a function of the environment. In the sweat-filled sauna that was the Electric Lounge on Thursday, Austin and Albuquerque went at it like Ali and Foreman in Kinshasa. And the Rumble in the Jungle description ain't too far off as not only was it unbelievably hot and humid but from a violence perspective, while the teams were onstage duking it out verbally, two partisan audience members in the back of the club almost got into an actual fight.
And when individual finalist-to-be Sarah Holbrook's unbelievably powerful pieces got a five-point-something in the semifinal team bout against San Francisco and the Mission District, you'd a thunk that judge was going to be bludgeoned on the spot. Hell, that bout was so intense and so fierce, ugly even, that one of the San Francisco poets took the stage and threatened the rival Mission District team (both are from the Bay Area) instead of reading his prepared piece.
Maybe in Chicago, where the finals will be held next year, they have an abundance of poet-loving boxing judges (or is that boxing-loving poet judges?). If things get any more nuts, they might have to pull double duty, and, unlike this year's bewildering former Communist judges, they'll be equipped to do so and hopefully do so well.
- Michael Bertin
Poetry Slam Results
In the team finals, featuring the top four teams from a field of 45, New York City won an incredibly close bout, beating seasoned veterans Cleveland and first-time finalists Dallas and Los Angeles. Scores for individual poems ranged from a 27.1 to Dallas' perfect 30 for their group piece "Superheroes." As in the three-team bouts, each team read once per rotation for four rotations. However, since there were four teams in the finals, the bout consisted of 16 rather than 12 poems. Each poem received a score of 0-10 from five judges. The high and low were dropped, leaving the middle three scores for each poem, with a maximum of 30 points per poem, and a maximum of 120 points for the bout. In the finals, points were deducted after the three-minute time limit and a 20-second grace period, an allowance made for the larger room and more responsive audience of a National Poetry Slam finals. The point deduction was half a point for every 10 seconds over the 3:20 limit. Poets read in a staggered order, meaning that for each four-poem round, each team read in a different spot in the round. For instance, in Saturday night's finals, Los Angeles read first in the first round, fourth in the second round, third in the third round, and second in the fourth round.
NYC, 1st place: 116.2
Dallas, 2nd place: 115.7
Los Angeles, 3rd place: 115.1
Cleveland, 4th place: 114.9
Individual finals: The six individual finalists read twice in the indie finals. Poets also read in a staggered order, by choosing numbers from 1 to 6. The first-round order was in ascending order by draw, and the second round was in ascending order from 4 to 6 and then 1 to 3. The first round and second round scores were added together, maxing a cumulative score. As in the team finals, there were a maximum of 30 points possible per poem, and 60 points possible in the indie finals.
As you can tell by the scores, judges liked what they heard. Patricia Johnson's comparatively low score was the result of a sizable time penalty on her second-round piece. Her poem was one of the most emotionally searing, genuine poems of the entire tournament. As a whole, the scores reflect how close to perfect, and how close to each other, the poets really were.
Reggie Gibson (Bellwood, Ill.): 59.3
Derrick Brown (Laguna Beach, Calif.): 58.2
Brian Comiskey (Boston, Mass.): 57.8
Sara Holbrook (Cleveland, Ohio): 57.7
Cass King (Vancouver, British Columbia): 56.8
Patricia Johnson (Roanoke, Va.): 53.8
- Phil West