The Madison National Poetry Team arrives in Austin ready to compete. From bottom, clockwise: Eric Mata, Josh Healey, Ryan Hurley, and Kyle 'El Guante' Myhre.
The Madison National Poetry Slam teams journey begins somewhat uneventfully on Tuesday. Waiting through a three-hour layover at O'Hare, Eric Mata rehearses, Ryan Hurley writes haiku, Josh Healey listens to the boring new Common album and I kill trolls with shotguns on the PSP. We also play the "spot the poet in the crowd" game, scanning the terminal for leather backpacks, black fedoras or overpowering airs of self-importance.
Most of the poets we meet, though, are pretty cool.
Our first day in Austin is thankfully free from competition; just some registration and orientation, a few open mics, and -- Texas is great -- eating What-A-Burgers. We watch our tremendously talented Milwaukee compatriots win their first bout, and also spend a couple hours rehearsing our pieces, tweaking subtle things like preposition placement, pronoun usage, rhythm, vocal tone and more.
Indeed, spoken word is a fairly complicated art/sport. It requires equal attention to both the writing of the verse ("do you think we're using the f-word too much?") and the performance ("make sure it looks like you're swinging the bat at the piñata and not the little girl"). Slam, which is the competitive element of the scene, really puts a magnifying glass on everything, particularly the poet's ability to engage an audience and effectively communicate his or her message.
As judges at slams are pulled randomly from the crowd, this can make things quite interesting. For those not familiar with the format, five random audience members judge the poems they hear according to content, delivery and creativity on a scale of one to ten. With about 300 poets representing some 75 teams from across the country, the range of styles and subject matter is pretty breathtaking.
I am not, however, going to be writing exclusively about the "beauty of human expression" or the "courage of these modern-day griots." There's a lot of bullshit here as well, plenty of formulaic, obvious, platitude-spewing drivel. The good usually outweighs the bad, though. We've seen and heard a lot of interesting stuff today, poems dealing with issues that range from black identity to domestic abuse to veganism to marriage to something about spoons and why they're angry at forks.
Our first bout is tomorrow night, against Phoenix, Decatur, Farmington and New York's famed Nuyorican team.
Keep checking back for updates; slam is a very interesting culture, and I'll be expanding on some of the stuff I'm hinting at here. When the National Poetry Slame comes to Madison in 2008, hopefully we'll be ready for it.