Make the Word Go Bang!
Lights dim, shimmer, fade, and revive -- pulsing with breath as if to match the steadily roaring grumble of a capacity crowd. Showers of raucous catcalls pour from all walls in rivulets of rage, furor, and nail-biting tension. This 1,324-seater is sold out, and people are looking for blood like sharks who have inhaled fear, thundering like sports fans who taste a touchdown or a piledriver with hands clapping against the backs of chairs and shoes stomping on concrete. The auditorium could almost crack open and swallow itself from stage to balcony. But the audience is not worked up over a football game or wrestling match; they're here for a verbose brawl, a battle of wits, metaphorical bloodsport, an endurance contest fought, won, and lost with the travel of words from mind to mouth to mic to the mob.Believe it or not, they're here for poetry.The ringmaster has no clothes, so to speak, except for a porkpie hat and scrubby facial growth. He's the zookeeper, word pusher, the Ayatollah of Slam-ola, guardian of the poetry-temple exchange rates. New York poetry impresario Bob Holman speaks: "Hey hey hey! Everyone wants to know how come when you get these poems up here, these THINGS of beauty, which we have asked the whimsically selected judges to adjudicate for us, that these THINGS of beauty can become their numerological equivalents -- doesn't that mean that the life gets kicked out of it? Absolutely! It's a poetry slam!" Jeering whistles clash with hands clapping, but Holman devours all responses: "This is a poem that is dedicated to all of us, all the poets who have come up here, read their poems, and gotten screwed! It's called 'Why Slam Causes Pain and Is a Good Thing':because slam is unfairbecause slam is too much funbecause poetry because rulesbecause poetry rulesbecause I could do thatbecause everybody's voiceis heard ...because Pepsi and Nikehave conflicting ideas aboutslam team uniforms ...because rap is poetry and hiphop is poetry ...because local heroes finallyhave national community ...because best poet alwaysloses!!!"A tsunami of noise washes over the auditorium with echoes of echoes, as the lights go down and come up on one solitary mic when a disembodied voice commands: LET'S GET RRRRREADY TO RRRRRRRUMMMMBLE!"We gonna get it on, because we don't get along!"-- Muhammad Ali to George ForemanI arrive at Austin's Ruta Maya cafe on Thursday, August 20, for a preliminary bout in the ninth annual National Poetry Slam. It's the biggest such event yet, with 45 teams (of four people each) competing for the grand prize of $2,000, plus 14 additional individual competitors going separately for $500. Poets from across the U.S. and Canada arrive here upon qualifying in local and regional competitions held throughout the year at home-based reading series. For many, the national slam is a pilgrimage that draws repeat contenders, but for others it's a brave, new world, as with the New York City team based out of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which generates new teammates every year.Arguably, the slam's origins are co-terminous with poetry itself, but the slam as a distinctly U.S. phenomenon goes back to the '70s and '80s when hard-nosed midwestern poets experimented with taking poetry from salons to saloons. Former Chicago construction worker Marc Smith was one of those poets who helped breathe new life into poetry after experiencing stale literary and academic gatherings where the spoken word was treated reverentially, like the word of God. In dada-esque reaction, Smith and others organized events in which poets donned boxing gear and sparred in wrestling rings where they honed the art of verbal one-upmanship. Smith encouraged the crowd to voice consent or dissent with the poet's vision, or to just howl drunkenly if that's what they felt like doing.By the mid-'80s, Smith had launched a regular weekly slam that eventually found a home at the Green Mill (Al Capone's former speakeasy, by the way). From there, it spread to the coasts, and the Chicago style of performance poetry was cross-pollinated at newly christened slam cafes and bars across the country. It wasn't long before the first national slam competition convened in San Francisco in 1990.Today's bout pits San Francisco against Roanoake against Seattle. Five judges are chosen randomly from the audience to give an Olympic-style score of 0-10 for each three-minute reading in four rounds, where each team member gets a reading slot. The high and low scores are dropped, and the remaining three judges' scores are added. Poems over three-minutes long are penalized, and group performances are allowed in place of an individual reading. Props, costumes, and music are against the rules. Reading from memory is the norm, but scripts are allowed. The team with the highest cumulative score wins. Sounds simple, right? Before the weekend is over, these basic rules will serve as the nexus of debate, division, and unbridled animosity. Protest is as much the rule as the rules themselves. The heat is on. Literally. Poems spit forth like steaming asphalt, fast and furious, increasing the Texas humidity with lip friction. The bout closes with San Francisco on top (106.5 points), ahead of Roanoke (98.4) and Seattle (96.6).Smash-mouth poetry comin' at ya!It's the semi-finals on Friday, and a math error now pits Albuquerque against Manhattan against Bellwood, a bout that should prove to make poetic sparks fly with the talent lined up. So I'm at Blondies, a skate store, where Albuquerque's Kenn Rodriguez is flexing for the match. He doesn't seem visibly worried about the re-match with Team Manhattan, who beat Albuquerque last year. "If you want to win the slam, you got to beat the nation," he says matter-of-factly. Rodriguez sums up by saying that Albuquerque will feel good about the bout if they perform well with integrity.Team Bellwood's Chuck Perkins, on the other hand, is in a state of agitation. "I'm an ex-football player," he grumbles with playful, mock menace, and he looks the part with his shaved head and Fridge-Man frame. "There's terminology we use as ball players, like smash-mouth football. So I'm out to let that transpire to poetry. I want, like, smash-mouth poetry -- I take no prisoners. I don't play, and that's why I dropped out of grammar school: I didn't like recess." He busts up laughing and breaks from his act, still talking about how a poet can step up to the mic with venom and leave the stage sizzling. He's here for the pure sport of it -- that, and the wine, women, song, and such that the national slam entails.But it's time for Perkins to show us the money. The teams draw for order, and the emcee skips through the spiel repeated prior to every bout: "A perfect score of 10 would be an earth-shattering text performed perfectly, and a zero would be the worst poem you could possibly imagine performed by someone who should not quit his or her day job."Different sides of the room ring with applause when the teams rotate and poets step up, while coaches mark time with stop watches and hold up color-coded cards to let the emcees know who's on next. Albuquerque takes the stage with a group poem: "From where I'm sitting, I haven't seen any poem that can make me feel safe at night ... I haven't seen any poem that could feed, bathe, or clothe a homeless man." Syncopated voices switch off between the four team members lined up: "I haven't seen any poem that could stop police dogs from ripping chunks of flesh off a 10-year-old boy." Neck veins and pressured eyes bulge, as they comment on their situation as poets, with dangerously close judgment of their own craft: "when are we going to stop talking assertively and start acting assertively? ... when are we going to stop posturing behind staticky microphones and finally start getting our pristine hands dirty? ... I've never seen any poem that could stop oppression ... but I am ready and waiting with an open heart and open mind."Manhattan comes back with a team piece pairing Amanda Nazario and Beau Sia. In the performance, Nazario tries to convince Sia that he's gay, while Sia adamantly professes his heterosexual love for her -- until she asks, with the microphone demonstratively used for emphasis, "would you love me if I had a dick? ... If I was a man, and I had a dick, you'd touch my dick?" Sia follows through the logic and breaks down, with Amanda congratulating him on his admission.The round stops, as the emcee announces a protest: possible violation of the prop rule. Someone from the audience utters, "sometimes a microphone is just a microphone." The emcee adds that Nazario's performance slot was mostly taken up by Sia, which makes for another protest.While the protests are being discussed, Bellwood's Dan Ferri takes the mic with a touching, meditative piece inspired by his work as a sixth-grade teacher, speaking to the precariousness of young minds and energy: "a room full of boys is a box full of mouse traps with a ping-pong ball set on each spring aching for release ... girls circle, gathering, dancing new molecules, negotiating solar systems -- they are a tag team of young Venuses, I am a weakening sun." After his reading, a friend of Team Bellwood whispers to me that he should have read "The Bald Guy," a crowd-pleasing take on Ferri's hairlessness. The judges score the piece, which hovers around 8.7. Ferri walks out of Blondies with heavy emotion on his face, recognizing that Bellwood won't come back from this blow. Howls, jeers, and semaphore of hand-gesturing incredulity burst from the crowd, but the scores are in: Manhattan with 110.3, Albuquerque with 109.3, and Bellwood with 106.8.An exodus of poets meets a crowd waiting for the next semis bout, and as I make my way outside I notice Marc Smith surrounded by a gaggle of poets evaluating the prior match. "It's not about the writing anymore," says Smith, "it's about how many different ways can you say 'suck my dick.'" I walk away with Bellwood's Dan Ferri and Reggie Gibson, who console each other. Ferri is visibly upset, but enthusiastic: "We did what we did with integrity." A fan comes up and says, "your writing blew away anything around you -- you guys should have won," and the Bellwood boys seem consoled.Meeting the masterA jelly-roll-shaped white guy in tights and a lucha libre Mexican wrestling mask with thick-framed glasses holds up an individual slam championship belt heavy with fake gold plating as the Paramount crowd roars to see El Poeta (as this year's mascot is known) get down and dirty with the rest of the poets.Outside, faces are pressed with distortion against the glass doors, as rain falls over an impromptu poetry reading with poets holding up a banner that reads: "YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE LOUD." The banner mixes with cardboard signs announcing the need for an extra ticket. And there's scalpers -- people scalping tickets to see poetry! Inside, four teams vie for the championship: Dallas, New York City, Los Angeles, and Cleveland.After an intermission, Marc Smith takes the stage to emcee, saying "My name is Marc Smith," greeted by a resounding "SO WHAT!" Former Boston Globe columnist and four-time indie champ Patricia Smith joins him to handle the six finalists who will go two rounds each for the individual championship. Derrick Brown, from Laguna Beach, goes into an abstract absurdist piece that thrills the crowd with its suggestive rhythm: "I am the punk in your trunk and the if in your riff and the or in your gasm ... I am the tears extracted by Johnson & Johnson, I am the cuts on the fists of Mr. Charlie Bronson ... I am the last thing JFK tasted." Brian Comiskey, a roofer from Boston, reads a softly compelling poem on stealing car stereos and how he became a poet -- "the poet who once stole songs."Reggie Gibson takes the stage next, as he dedicates the following poem to James Marshal Hendrix: "Burn it down, burn it down, burn it all the way down, Jimi, make us burn in the flame that became your sound, Jimi, grabbing ol' Legba by his neck forcing him to show you respect, hoochie man coochie man, strangle him coochie hoodoo man, wrangle him voodoo child ... and the purple haaaaze ran through your brain and drained into the veins of trippers, daytrippers turned acid angels by the gift of little wings from you ... and the musing brews of your sadomasochistic blues would ooze through pores and LSD doors ... one more time before it's your last time, brother ... TO DIE YOUNG, TO DIE HIGH, TO DIE STONED, TO DIE FREEEEEEEE."He repeats this last refrain and wails into an air-jammed guitar simulation, as the crowd jumps from their seats yelling, "10! 10! 10!!!" Cheers and cross-cheers fill the house, with the audience taking sides on who should win, but the indie championship ultimately goes to Reggie Gibson, with Derrick Brown in second, and Brian Comiskey in third. The teams have been waiting for over an hour, strategizing and deciding which pieces to throw at the crowd, anticipating the other teams' moves. For the third round, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez steps up with another engaged poem from New York: "Mumia's plight is a hollow slogan to hook a poem on / as the revolution is compromised by wannabe rap stars disguised as slam poets / pandering to the crowd / telling them what they want to hear / instead of what they need to hear." It's an incredibly gutsy poem to read in a house full of slam poets, especially with randomly picked judges, since Gonzalez seems to take the whole slam to task for the art it produces: "You're not a poet, you just slam a lot / cram a lot of senseless rhyming / soulless pantomiming / saying shit like Tommy Kills-niggers / 'cause it's always fashionable to lay blame elsewhere / especially if it'll get a laugh and a couple of extra points." At the end of the third round, New York is still on top with 86.5. Dallas follows with 85.7, then LA with 85.6, and Cleveland with 85.3.In the final round, Dallas comes back with a group poem: "Look, up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a bad motherf -- SHUSH yo mouth! I'm just talking about my black superhero, baby!" As the piece progresses, they go through archetypes for a black, redneck, and gay superhero, as with the redneck: "I'll clothe myself in black, expose my butt crack, and walk with the swagger of Johnny Cash!" Rising euphoria of the crowd makes the house feel like everyone should jump on-stage and join in the fun, and rumbles of "10! 10! 10!!!" delay scoring. Team Dallas's GNO rushes across backstage like he's flying during the cheering, which draws cries of "Team Dallas is trying to influence the score!" No matter: Dallas scores a perfect ten.But it's not over yet: for New York's final entry, Alix Olson rushes the microphone, not letting the chaos die down from the Dallas reading. Slightly hunched over and jabbing with her free hand, Olson snatches the mic as if she wants to catapult her poem off the vibe from the former piece, reading with furious energy: "it's a remote control America that's on sale 'cause standing up for justice can't compare to 'I can't do it from a lazy chair' ... now with buy one shmuck get one shmuck free in the capitalist party, and there's nothing left to get in the way, of a full blue-light blowout of the U-S-of-A, there's a know-nothing back guarantee, a zero-year warranty when you buy this land of the freetos, ruffles, lays -- this home of the braves, the chiefs, the reds, the slaves, so call 1-800-I-DON'T-CARE-ABOUT-SHIT or www.fuckallofit to receive your credit for the fate of our nation ... where the almighty dollars sparkle and shine in the Starbucks land, I'm proud to call it mine, but America's selling fast, shoppers -- buy it all while you can, 'cause America's been downsized, citizens, and YOU'RE ALL FIRED."The scores pile in, and poets mob the stage when New York takes first place with 116.2, with Dallas in second (115.7), Los Angeles in third (115.1), and Cleveland in fourth (114.9). Debates will continue to rage about rules and definitions of poetry, and the conflicts will never entirely be resolved, but the question, as Vancouver's Cass King put it, remains: "I know it's entertainment, but is it A-R-T, is it ART?" That's the leap of faith. But in this auditorium, through the agony of defeat and the grandeur of victory, all of that has been put to the side. These slam poets -- the new griots, storytellers, shit talkers, neighborhood sages, and village idiots all -- replay and relive the communal underpinnings of the spoken word. On this stage, they meet their maker, and this moment is pure.*** "Luis Rodriguez ... is famous for going all over the country [with his poetry] ... working with gangs, and going into prisons and so on. I believe that we have to do this, not only for the benefit of those audiences and those populations, but for the benefit of poetry. Poetry faces extinction -- certainly irrelevance -- if it does not begin to transform itself ... to become part of working-class life in this country ... There are certainly always going to be the aesthetic fascists out there in the poetry world, but there are also barriers breaking down every day in poetry ... If we don't do that, then we're leaving ourselves to the whims of the chain bookstores, and pretty soon that chain is gonna be wrapped around our collective necks."-- poet Martn Espada, interviewed by Danny Postel in LIP