With less than a week remaining before city slam finals, held at the Inn on the Park back in May. Five judges selected randomly from the audience at the slam gave them the highest set of scores, based upon a pair of three minutes poems, the same format generally used in the national competition. "You never know what the outcome of a slam is going to be," notes Smith. "You just have to go in and do it. That night the universe was in my favor." This was only the latest height, though, in many years of spoken word practice and performance for all five.
The 2008 Madison Slam Team can already claim many years of collective experience on the national stage. Gildrie-Voyles has competed in a pair of national team as well as individual slams, Mata has taken the stage twice too, and Healey and Hurley both made their debut at last year's event in Austin. And though Smith has yet to compete in the National Poetry Slam proper, he has competed twice with the Minnesota team in the youth nationals and was a member of the first University of Wisconsin-Madison team that took third in the College National Poetry Slam, held in Albuquerque back in March. And then there's the local scene.
All are veterans of the Urban Spoken Word Collective, a regular series of informal Saturday night slams held monthly at Genna's on the Capitol Square that is also serving as the name for the hometown team next week. The Evy Gildrie-Voyles
Hometown: Clarksville, Tennessee
When did you start writing spoken word? I started writing poetry when I was 8. I started writing one woman performance pieces when I was 18. They merged together into performance poetry when I was 25.
When did you first perform a piece? I started slamming in 1999 in Trenton, New Jersey.
How would you describe your spoken word style? Aggressively arrhythmic and I refuse to rhyme.
What is the hardest thing about performing? The waiting.
Who are your lyrical and spoken word inspirations? Tim Miller (a performance artist and human rights activist), William Carlos Williams (I love his use of everyday objects and ideas in poetry), Sonya Renee and Buddy Wakefield.
What does it mean for Madison to host the National Poetry Slam? A serious increase in my coffee consumption. It is a chance for Madison to be exposed to a wide variety of voices and to introduce itself as a place of writers, thinkers and some of the most consistent, fervent and demanding audiences and judges in any slam scene in the nation.
What city's teams are you looking forward to seeing perform in Madison? Oh my, lots of them. DC/Baltimore always rocks. Seattle is amazing. Atlanta's slam mistress is one of the sweetest women I have met at a slam event, and the team is good too. The New York teams are often amazing and I have some nostalgic love for all things New Jersey.
How would you assess the Madison's team's chances at NPS 2008? One of the greatest things about slam is that the judging is done by random audience members so it is capricious and arbitrary. We have a great team this year, and we are going to perform amazing poetry, and hopefully the judges will respond to that.
What is the most exciting thing happening in the slam/spoken word world right now? The Nerd Slam!!!!!!!! This is from 2:45-4:45 p.m. on Thursday, August 7.
Hometown: Washington, DC
When did you start writing spoken word? 16
When did you first perform a piece? 16
How would you describe your spoken word style? I try to write stories that make people think about a situation/an issue/themselves in a new way, make them laugh, and make them yell in joy or anger.
What is the hardest thing about performing? Finding that balance between vulnerability and confidence to really connect with the audience.
Who are your lyrical and spoken word inspirations? Langston Hughes, Kevin Coval, Patricia Smith, Erykah Badu, Dr. Seuss, and Amiri Baraka.
What does it mean for Madison to host the National Poetry Slam? The chance to show the nation what a great artistic community and beautiful city we have... at least in the summer.
What city's teams are you looking forward to seeing perform in Madison? Some of my favorites from last year -- NYC Louder Arts, Boston, Seattle, etc. -- but I always go out to support my friends/rivals from the other Midwest teams... Milwaukee, St. Paul, Chicago, etc.
How would you assess the Madison's team's chances at NPS 2008? I think we have a strong team this year, especially with the addition of Danez, who rocks the mic ridiculously hard. He and Evy are amazing performers, Ryan and Eric are brilliant writers, and I can sing back-up pretty well.
What is the most exciting thing happening in the slam/spoken word world right now? I'm biased of course, but I think the work happening at UW and in the Madison schools with the First Wave program is the most exciting stuff going on in spoken word. Wisconsin is the only college in the country to embrace spoken word and hip-hop as a means for educating (and learning from) the new generation of students. On a personal note, I'm just finishing work on my first full poetry collection, called Hammertime: Poems & Possibilities, to be published this fall. I'm actually moving out of Madison the week after Nationals, moving out to Oakland to live with my partner and continue my work in the spoken word education world with the original Youth Speaks office.
Hometown: Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
When did you start writing spoken word? I began writing poetry around age 13, but I don't know if I would consider it 'spoken word' since I didn't actually perform until much later. In fact, I don't know if I'd consider it 'poetry,' more like random thoughts in the margins of my math notebook.
When did you first perform a piece? The first time I performed was at an open mic at the Memorial Union when I was about 22 years-old. I've never been so nervous in front of four people.
How would you describe your spoken word style? I think I'm a little more soft-spoken than your typical spoken word poet. I try to rely on the content of my work to forward the performance aspect.
What is the hardest thing about performing? Because I am a little less aggressive with my performance style, and spoken word events are often held in bars and places with a lot of background noise, it can be hard to compete for the attention of an audience.
Who are your lyrical and spoken word inspirations? Hip hop music played a very significant role in inspiring me to express myself through the written word at a young age. Music in general is still a consistent source of inspiration but local poets/friends probably have the most direct influence on my work because we connect so often.
What does it mean for Madison to host the National Poetry Slam? It means a lot. It means that we have some incredible organizers that were able to convey the qualities of Madison in a convincing manner. It means that we have the opportunity to represent Madison as a land of good poetry and great people.
What city's teams are you looking forward to seeing perform in Madison? The Seattle team always brings it with incredible literary talent.
How would you assess the Madison's team's chances at NPS 2008? We have an amazing team with incredible talent but slam poetry is unpredictable in its nature. There are a lot of erratic factors, such as draw selection and judges that can influence how a team scores.
What is the most exciting thing happening in the slam/spoken word world right now? The National Poetry Slam is going to be hosted by Madison, Wisconsin!!!
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
When did you start writing spoken word? 26
When did you first perform a piece?19
How would you describe your spoken word style? I would describe my style as honest and reflective... underdramatic maybe. If that's a word (we'll give it to you).
What is the hardest thing about performing? For me the hardest part of performing is giving movement to words. I don't often memorize my poems which makes doing that, that much harder. The poets that I love the most are the ones who have powerful words/stories and the movements that accentuate the poem.
Who are your lyrical and spoken word inspirations? I would say my lyrical and spoken word inspirations are Dasha Kelly, Kevin Coval, Roger Bonair-Agard and Suheir Hammad.
What does it mean for Madison to host the National Poetry Slam? I think it's huge that Madison is hosting this event. I think when Madison first came on to the slam, we kind of turned heads because we were bringing something different... focusing on the writing first... and then the performance. I also think it's good to showcase some of the wonderful things Madison has been doing with spoken word both in the community and on campus.
What city's teams are you looking forward to seeing perform in Madison? Nuyorican (New York City), Albuquerque, Seattle, Milwaukee, St. Paul., Chicago, and anyone we have to go against.
How would you assess the Madison's team's chances at NPS 2008? In slam, anything's possible... and just like with any other competitive sport... home field advantage counts for something.
What is the most exciting thing happening in the slam/spoken word world right now? The youth scene. That's definitely the most exciting thing happening right now, and I truly believe Wisconsin with the First Wave program is at the leading edge of that movement. I also think that in the adult slam there is a movement away from the gimmicky slam poems, and more of an emphasis in the writing. But we'll see what shows up in Madison.
Danez J. Smith
Hometown: St. Paul, Minnesota
When did you start writing spoken word? 14
When did you first perform a piece? 14
How would you describe your spoken word style? I don't know. I think as I change so does my style. Right now, I'm not the most amazing writer, but I can put a lot of energy and time into whatever I do. I'm kinda similar to others my age, influenced by the Saul Williams and Mayda de Valles and Josh Healeys of the world.
What is the hardest thing about performing? Staying dedicated after doing a piece multiple times. Or havin' an audience that doesn't like your stuff and having to finish the performance.
Who are your lyrical and spoken word inspirations?Willie Perdomo, Mayda del Valle, Josh Healey, and Mark Bamuti Joesph. All of them taught me something different.
What does it mean for Madison to host the National Poetry Slam? It means that the Midwest is starting to be recognized for the talent that populates it. With the hip-hop/poetry going on in Minnesota and in Wisconsin, and the growing presence of Midwest poets nationally as seriously dope, fresh, crazy artists, we are going to see a lot more stuff up in the north.
What city's teams are you looking forward to seeing perform in Madison? Milwaukee, state friends and rivals. All my ideals compete at the nationals or at least are there. I'm only 18 and still getting used to being an adult. I feel like I'm going up against the people who taught me to do this stuff. It's like, "Yo! I remember watching you on Def Poetry in my basement! Now I have to slam against you?" It's crazy.
How would you assess the Madison's team's chances at NPS 2008?We have some secret weapons and we are generally dope artists. I think we will do well, and we will impress. Home field advantage doesn't hurt either.
What is the most exciting thing happening in the slam/spoken word world right now?My generation, the brave new voices generation, is so new anymore. We are now becoming part of the scene that we looked up to, rubbing elbows with heroes and idols. But with all due respect, we aren't scared. We are hungry and ready to be heroes and idols to another generation.
National Poetry Slam 2008, along with the accompanying "Lyrics on the Lake" festival, begins on Tuesday, August 3 and runs through Saturday, August 9. Madison's first round competitions are at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, August 6 and at the Brink Lounge at 10 p.m. on Thursday, August 7. Should the Madison squad finish in the top 20 of 76 competing teams, it will advance to the semifinal round on Friday, from which four will move on to the finals on Saturday for a shot at being named slam champion. By all accounts, it will be a great showing.