It was verse versus verse Friday night at the Wisconsin Teen Poetry Grand Slam Finals, but the 21 high school students who got up and spat spoken word were all treated like winners.
The competition drew around 200 bodies to the Wisconsin Union Theater to watch the artists -- Madison and Milwaukee students who'd survived earlier semifinals -- perform original compositions, in an attempt to be among the six who will represent the state at an international festival in Los Angeles this summer. The three-hour show started about 25 minutes late, but once the first round began, things moved at a quick clip.
Alone onstage but for a pair of DJs who played brief cuts of hip-hop between performances, each of the 11 girls and 10 boys launched into their piece after a brief introduction from host Queen GodIs, a Brooklyn hip-hop artist. Lasting anywhere from one to four minutes, the poems were a flurry of vocabulary, a blend of free verse and rhyme, alternately intense and lighthearted, that dealt with topics like sexual abuse, neglectful parents, race relations and how hard it is for nice guys to get any action.
The power of words was also a common theme, and particularly potent lines were met with murmurs, whoops and delighted cries of "What?!" from the audience. If a poet was overcome with emotion or lost the flow, supportive finger-snaps broke the silence until he or she recovered. And when a sound guy rather rudely interrupted one recitation to replace a faulty mic, the crowd encouragingly called for the rattled artist to "Start over! Start over!"
Halfway through the first round, Green Bay high schoolers Mellow and Seth hit the stage for a dance to Chris Brown and Lil Wayne's "I Can Transform Ya" that was as badass as any of the poems. After the rest of the contestants had performed, Milwaukee writer and teacher Dasha Kelly threw out some verse, and Queen GodIs kept the audience occupied with a mix of song, poetry and rapping that took her out into the aisles and around the room, with a vibrato that compared favorably to Nina Simone's.
The mood was vehemently supportive of all the poets -- standing ovations were routine, and GodIs playfully picked on the judges for having to choose winners. The second round whittled 11 performers down to the six who'll head to the 13th Annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in L.A. from July 19 to 25. Darien Power, a Madison West senior who made the cut, said he hadn't expected to.
"So psyched," he said. "My friends said they thought I would, and I was thinking, 'Maybe... It would be awesome if I could.' But I really didn't know it would happen."
Besides Power, the Wisconsin team includes Ricky Jones from West, Darrel Butcher from Madison East, Emmitt Williams and Elijah Furquan from Reagan High in Milwaukee, and Marcelles Brown from Milwaukee High School of the Arts. MHSA's Nakila Robinson also qualified, but having already been accepted into the First Wave spoken-word program run by UW's Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives, which helped present the finals, she's not allowed to compete.