Lights dim, shimmer, fade, and revive – pulsing with breath as if to match the steadily roaring grumble of a capacity crowd at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas. 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.

The crowd spews choice phrases at the slightest show of weakness, and yet they’re prone to abject sing-song hypnosis and moments of crushing pathos, especially when their heroes melt under a collective magnifying glass of audience scorn. They’re oddly tame when an emcee takes the microphone.
“Hell yeah!” the house echoes. 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 City 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 unfair
because slam is too much fun
because poetry because rules
because poetry rules
because I could do that
because everybody’s voice is heard …”
Holman continues with inspired froth:
“because Pepsi and Nike have conflicting ideas about slam team uniforms …
because Patricia Smith has more truth in her little finger than an entire
Boston Globe front page …
because rap is poetry and hip hop is poetry …
because local heroes finally have national community…
because best poet always loses!!!”
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:
“We gonna get it on, because we don’t get along!”
– Muhammad Ali to George Foreman
I arrive at Austin’s Ruta Maya cafe on Thursday, August 20, for a preliminary bout in the 9th 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.
I think about the slam’s humble beginnings when I elbow my way into Ruta Maya’s packed environs full of young scribes-wanting-to-be-oracles chomping at the bit for a piece of the action. When all of a sudden, I’m asked to be a judge for this bout between San Francisco, Roanoke, and Seattle. Should I remain “objective” or dive in head first? As the constant refrain, mantra, and all-purpose disclaimer goes: it’s a fucking slam!
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. Four-time individual slam champion Patricia Smith serves as emcee and introduces the judges: “this might be the only time you’ll want to applaud them.” I get used to the booing and hissing as if this article has already been released to a room full of poets. “Thanks for attending this bout at the hottest place on earth,” Smith jokes (she must not have visited SanAnto before). The bout closes with San Francisco on top (106.5 points), ahead of Roanoke (98.4) and Seattle (96.6).
The standout poem in this round is “Fallen Catholic Fix,” by SF’s Russell Gonzaga, a 29-year-old Filipino whose excitement at attending his third national slam matches his energy to win this year. We talk after the round and manage to sweat out the heat that will make poets faint throughout this weekend’s tournament.
Gonzaga teaches in an after-school program for mostly at-risk youth, a background he himself shares. The slam seems to be both a channel for and target of the rage he has worked through since his gang-banging days. He talks specifically about poetry readings for the slam versus poetry readings in communities of color: “I have slam work, and I have work that I do for the community, people of color, and I keep the two fairly separate. With a slam poem, I don’t get too spiritual. If I do, it’s interweaved with something that’s more mainstreamish, and that’s the one thing that’s strange about the slam: it’s defining a mainstream poetry, which is kind of odd.”
Addressing racial issues and other topics of importance to communities of color is a difficult if not self-defeating undertaking at the slam, says Gonzaga. “Subjecting oneself to the scrutiny of the dominant culture is one thing,” Gonzaga points out, “and not only that, they’re giving you number scores, which is even more problematic.” Paul Devlin’s excellent movie, Slam Nation: The Sport of the Spoken Word, documents the opinion at the 1996 national slam that poems on race from people of color score low. But then again, conventional wisdom says that the judges always suck, and the argument goes that the best teams are the ones who can win despite and because of this fact.
In fairness, Gonzaga admits that folks of color participate widely in the slam, and that only females won the individual competition up until last year, when Cleveland’s Da Boogie Man, a young black male, won the title. But the question remains: why divide oneself between work devoted to home community versus this relatively new community called the national slam? “I’ll describe it in terms of experience,” says Gonzaga, “my first national slam at Ann Arbor, Michigan, walking into an auditorium filled with like 1,000 people, to see poetry! I had never experienced that in my life.” Ultimately, he feels that he must support the slam’s popularizing and democratizing effects for poetry.
[Marc Smith, photo by Benjamin Ortiz]
Devlin’s film vividly captures the glory of poetry elevated by spectator flash, as the documentary follows Team New York City on its trip to the 1996 nationals in Portland, Oregon. The film’s title foregrounds the “sport” aspect of the slam, which makes sense since Devlin is an award-winning sports documentarian. But the film also does a good job of kicking different opinions around; some see the slam as a vehicle to advance literature, others see it as a poetry and performance hybrid art form unto itself, while others thrive on the slam as pure, no-holds-barred competition. Slam Nation also puts Marc Smith on camera, sagely suggesting that the slam works if it creates a community of poets.
But to get to the nationals, a year’s worth of local competition is
required, with poets keeping stats on themselves and others like running
backs. Poets sometimes “riff” on each others’ works, voicing criticism
often to the point of pissing each other off, and all the while provoking
each other to perform in top form like a race horse pushed to the limit,
requiring some element of strategy and even more stamina. Ultimately, the
slam is a community created by local and regional winners, who further put
the national gathering to the test of what community means and how it can
survive the contentious head butting that competition breeds.
Bob Holman, 1998 Team Manhattan slammaster (slamspeak for local
venue organizer), has been criticized and hated in some circles for
cheapening the slam and appealing to pure spectacle, as well as exploiting
gray areas (loopholes in rules). He helped found Mouth Almighty, the first
and only label devoted to spoken word artists, along with producing The
United States of Poetry for PBS and master-minding last year’s Manhattan
slam team, named Team Mouth Almighty, who won the championship. His
promotion of poetry’s commercial viability through corporate sponsorship
and merchandising has further been a source of controversy, with arguments
in his favor that this is merely an extension of the slam’s mission: to
popularize poetry. Sometimes, his emphasis on glitz and celebrity runs up
against Marc Smith’s blue collar character and emphasis on an honor system
in respecting rules.
But where does riffing cross the line between competitive edge, on
the one hand, and violation of a poet’s integrity, on the other? Where does
community give way to competition, that which both brings people together
and potentially divides them? Are rules to be taken advantage of, or
respected as law? Should the slam have a singular vision of poetic
integrity, or revel in creative division? When does poetry lose its
literary value and become pure performance? And how much corporate
sponsorship is too much?
These are questions that stem from the slam and fuel its fire,
questions that will never be answered definitively. But each and every
individual’s answers constitute a leap of faith in the slam that keeps them
coming back and contributing their diversity to the national community.
Community within community
Through light sprinkles of rain and ominous lightening, I travel
after the Ruta Maya bout with friends to Resistencia Bookstore, a haven of
progressive literary events proverbially situated “east of the freeway,” as
in the poetry collection of the same name by raulrsalinas. At 64, Salinas
is one of few remaining elder statesmen of Chicano poetry who has traveled
extensively to create networks of solidarity between African-American,
pan-Latino, and Native-American activists.
Part of his unofficial training in political and literary struggles
comes from Puerto Rican independentistas he met while imprisoned in the
U.S. federal prison system. Given the early passing of such poets as Jose
Antonio Burciaga, Ricardo Sanchez, and San Antonio’s own Jose Montalvo, the
reading for tonight will be an historic draw for Latinos from Austin and
SanAnto – Miguel Algarin, one of the founders of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe,
will headline a reading with the New York City slam team – all in “occupied
Mexico,” as Algarin calls it.
Straight out of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Nuyorican Poets
Cafe began in 1974 in Algarin’s apartment, where poets of the Puerto Rican
diaspora gave voice to a new urban identity captured by the term
“Nuyorican” taken up by now-legendary poets Miguel Piñero and Lucky
Cienfuegos. The Cafe sat closed for most of the ’80s but was jump-started
in 1989 after the death of Piñero, one of its co-founders. In partnership
with Algarin, Holman instituted the
cafe’s weekly slam and brought new life to the venue. Ed Morales, a Village
Voice writer who has worked with Holman, charts how the cafe became popular
to the point of super trendiness under Holman’s direction, and how it was
criticized for losing the Puerto Rican community base that was once the
founding principle of its existence.
“Algarin willingly allowed Holman to turn the cafe into a circus on
Friday nights when he ran the slam,” says Morales. Algarin’s taxing battle
with HIV and the demands of his professorship at Rutgers eventually took
his attention away from the cafe, where Holman was left to take credit for
its newfound notoriety. This was when relations between Holman and Algarin
became strained; Holman’s style began to supplant recognition of Algarin,
which made for a contentious relationship. Finally, a mutual schism over
Holman’s leave of absence to work on other projects got him booted in 1996
from the cafe’s board of directors. Morales admits that Holman helped make
the cafe a success in the ’90s, and that its original aesthetic has
subsequently evolved into the hip-hop ethos drawing the city’s young black
But tonight, at Resistencia, Algarin seems charged by the energy he
shares with the next generation of Nuyorican poets on the 1998 team. With
his left arm in a cast – reportedly from a street scuffle where he
interceded on behalf of a woman being harassed – Algarin takes the stage
with a jazz combo of saxophone and coronet to interpret poems by Salinas.
“Street corner dude makes jaaazzzzz Latino sounds,” Algarin intones with a
horn-trilled accent, as he simulates the cadence of congas, one-upping
Salinas’s Beat-jazz sensibilities with Afro-Latino rhythms and sensual
“I dare Raul to come up and read these poems better,” he says, in a
joking spirit of competition that forebodes the slam semi-finals coming up
tomorrow. Raul doesn’t take up the challenge, but instead he shares a few
poems before urging people to buy Algarin’s books and talk to him while
he’s still around, before they “catch the bus” with poets who have retired
from the struggle.
An open-mic reading begins, led by New York City slammaster Keith
Roach, who introduces the Nuyorican team and a host of other slam poets who
share in the evening’s festivity. A Nuyorican expatriate now on Team Los
Angeles, Gerrie B. Quickley arrives and hugs Keith Roach. Poets from
Montreal, Toronto, and Austin read until almost one in the morning despite
intermittent drizzle, sharing the calm of this community within the greater
slam community. It’s the calm before the storm.
Cold comfort community
I start Friday with breakfast at El Sol y la Luna next to the
Austin Motel, where poets are dragging themselves out of bed for a feast of
events in addition to the semi-finals bouts. Team Boston’s Gary Hicks, a
Christian Marxist who has a distinctive salt-and-pepper beard, joins in the
bouts today that will weed four finalists from the 18 teams who have made
the cut. “I’m in a state of existential shock,” says Hicks between coffee
refills. Today’s events include a head-to-head haiku slam, gay/lesbian
readings, and a “Chocolate City” showcase of African-American poets, among
many other open-mics and mini-slams. And then there’s the yearly softball
game, where poets prove they’re not true athletes.
But I head off to Book People bookstore to hear a reading with
Patricia Smith, emcee from the bout last night. I walk into Book People
just as the reading has started, and I notice that Smith is reciting her
“Note of Apology” that was printed in the Boston Globe following her
resignation as a metro columnist in June. Aside from being widely
recognized at the national slam as a pillar of this community and a slam
poet par excellence, she has also become known nationwide as the Pulitzer
Prize-finalist who admitted to fabricating characters and quotes in four
columns. In the note – her farewell column – the 43-year-old journalist
suggests that the ambition to achieve motivated her decision to “slam home
a salient point” from time to time with fabrication. “Finally, I’d like to
apologize to the memory of my father, Otis Douglas Smith,” she reads,
continuing with slight defiance, “and that’s his real name – you can check
Enthusiastic cheers issue from the crowd in obvious compensation
for the sense of loss Smith expresses. She mentions the support she has
received from the poetry community: “in the end, that was really the only
community that mattered.” Continuing to read poems laying bare what’s been
on her mind in the wake of the Globe incident, she admits to thoughts and
fears of the worst in moments of heartbreaking vulnerability: “My penance
is that I will keep living to see myself keep dying. I can see the
headline: disgraced, ousted, sinful ex-columnist just doesn’t get it. I
hide the gun on a bookshelf behind one painfully alphabetized row of poetry
Smith takes some time to switch papers, shaken somewhat. “Perhaps
you don’t understand. I am the face of American journalism slapping
journalism’s American face … I have been nationally declared a liar,
which means that this must be a lie and that me telling you that this must
be a lie must be a lie also.” Light, sympathetic laughter urges Smith to
keep reading with strength, but tears form at the corners of her eyes, as
her pained voice reads on: “These are words that I can still use: fluent,
funky, anemone, android, penis, shogun, sonnet, chisel, shield …. These
are words that I can still use: petal, candle, murmur, apple, tongue,
Now choking back tears, she forces the words to come out in a
litany, a catalogue of language she reclaims as her own: “scat, lullaby,
hands, adultery, vibrate, history.” She struggles to keep the string of
words coming, and then in thick staccato: “Man did not give me this gift –
man cannot take it away,” repeating this refrain to the point of
gut-wrenching emphasis, throwing her script to the ground, and finally
breaking out in tears that are met with open sobs from the audience. The
reading ends with a standing ovation and extended cheers.
Team Santa Cruz members Kelly McNally and Meliza Bañales openly
break down and cry with Smith. Afterwards, they say she’s a scapegoat in a
profession where journalists misquote and make far worse mistakes all the
time. Says Bañales, “She admitted she was wrong, and it takes a very human
person to admit mistakes. It’s also easy to demonize people for mistakes
because they’re in a public position.” From their reactions to her reading,
I wonder if they’re personal friends, but McNally points out that they just
met her: “She’s very open and giving, and she’s given us a lot of
encouragement since we’re only one of two all-female teams, and we’re going
into the semis.”
After the event, I head to Mojo’s cafe for a caffeine refill and to
see what’s happening next. I end up recounting Smith’s reading to a few
poets and an east coast slammaster. The slammaster voices a different
opinion on Smith’s appearance at this year’s slam: “She’s milking poets for
sympathy, because poets are dumb-asses. They don’t read the newspapers. I
mean, what she did wasn’t a mistake – it was blatant, calculated
fabrication.” Pointing out that there’s no need to fabricate material for a
metro column, he also clues me in to claims from the Boston Globe’s editor
that 20 more columns by Smith appear to have been fabricated. What’s clear
is that Smith’s career turn has become something of a rallying point in the
slam community.
Jivin’ with the pre-bout jitters
After the caffeine jolt, I wander over to Fringeware, a bookstore
next to Mojo’s, and run into Bob Holman chewing the fat with an old friend
of mine, Reggie Gibson. The 1996 film Love Jones was based loosely on
Chicago’s black poetry scene and featured poems by Gibson, whose
rhythmystical lyricism was a main source of inspiration for director
Theodore Witcher. Reggie has a bout this evening as part of Team Bellwood
(a Chicago satellite) and in the individual semi-finals, so we talk about
his strategy until a semi-finals update is posted in the windows of
Very bad news: a computation error in scores has completely
rearranged the semi-finals bouts. Two teams, Santa Cruz and the Ozarks
(Arkansas), have been cut from the semis given the corrected scores, while
Manhattan and San Francisco’s Mission District team have joined the semis
bouts – all only a matter of hours before the bouts begin. I notice Russell
Gonzaga looking at the update. “This is bad – this is so very bad,” he
mutters exhaustedly. His San Francisco team will now go against Cleveland
and SF-Mission District, whose slammaster is one of his teammates.
Gonzaga mentions the possible conflict of interest his teammate,
Tarin Towers, has between her SF team and the Mission District slam, which
she organized to produce their team. He also claims that Team Mission
District formed when individuals didn’t make the San Francisco team, and
suggests that their representation of the Mission District (a once
predominantly Latino neighborhood newly gentrified) has negative racial
overtones. Team Mission District member Daphne Gottlieb tells me later that
the team formed legally under slam law, which 1998 National Poetry Slam
co-director Phil West confirms. According to West, the local Mission slams
did happen after the San Francisco slams, but Towers had contacted West
prior to the San Francisco qualifiers and approved the formation of a
Mission Disrict Team.
“It was known that both teams would be appearing at the nationals
for at least a month,” says Gottlieb, “[and] the Mission team thought that
any conflicts had been ironed out prior to departing for Texas.” But
Gonzaga maintains: “There remains doubt as to the truth of their claims of
having an open slam. Some sources in SF have told me that there were no
qualifying open slams for these spots, and that they never intended for
there to be any … I, and others, are convinced that there were no open,
advertised, public slams to qualify the three other spots on the team
[aside from the fourth spot slammed by Lauren Wheeler]. I voiced my dismay
with my team and the slam master [who] told us that the team was registered
and we could not protest the team unless we were directly affected by them,
in particular … I was content with this, being fairly sure that we
wouldn’t have to compete against them.”
He moans, “I don’t want to do this round,” but his teammate Omolara
consoles him and says “we knew this bout could happen, and it’s no big
deal.” Gonzaga doesn’t seem convinced.
Back at Mojo’s, an impromptu reading has started as poets from the
Chocolate City showcase spill out of the cafe. Reggie Gibson, Cleveland’s
Da Boogie Man (who is sitting out this year’s competition), Kent Foreman
from Team Bellwood, and others are sharing a circle of poetry like family
reunited, and the call-and-response style of some poets creates an
evangelistic revival atmosphere. Which reminds me: poets just can’t get
enough of poetry. This goes on for a few hours, through the mugginess and
threatening storm clouds, until Gibson announces, “Oh shit! It’s time for
Smash-mouth poetry comin’ at ya!
The math error now pits Albuquerque against Manhattan against
Bellwood, a bout that should prove to make poetic sparks fly with the
talent lined up, and 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 Manhattan, who beat Albuquerque last year. “If you
want to win the national championships, you got to beat the nation,” he
says matter-of-factly. He mentions the corporate taint to the Manhattan
team, since they were sponsored by Mouth Almighty Records while other teams
had to hold fundraisers to scrape up money for nationals. And then there’s
the infamous incident last year when a Team Mouth Almighty member simulated
a penis by using a belt buckle suggestively, which tested the prop rules
but drew no penalty.
“We’re a pretty poor team, so if anybody should hate them, it’s
us,” says Rodriguez, “because we’re from one of the poorest states in the
nation. But you can’t go at it that way. Last year, we were built up with
hate, because a lot of people wanted us to beat them, but it didn’t help us
at all – in fact, it hurt us.” He 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.”
Manhattan’s Beau Sia takes the mic first and works himself into a
frenzy with a piece he read in 1996 finals: “When I get the money, I’m
gonna have iced monkey brain in Madagascar with Uma Thurman and Spock, and
me and Tarantino are gonna buy the bones of Bruce Lee and put them in a
movie called THE BONES OF BRUCE LEE ARE ALIVE … and I’m gonna be the
Asian male hustler on the Real World [on] Mars, and I’m gonna do sold-out
haiku poetry jams in Vegas! … when I get the money, I’m gonna own MTV,
and sure, money can’t buy you love, but love can’t buy you shit!” Manhattan
partisans whoop it up, urging him into more and more of a rabid recitation.
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 ten-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.
[Amanda Nazario and Beau Sia from Team Manhattan, in Austin 1998, photo by Benjamin Ortiz]
The round stops, as the emcee announces a protest lodged by someone
in the audience: 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, and that
the authorship of the poem is in question which makes for another protest
by Albuquerque; Manhattan might have violated the authorship rule.
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.
The emcee gives a protest update, mentioning that Sia’s
participation in the duet is legal if Nazario is the primary author of the
poem. On the prop protest, he reads from rulebook: “Generally, poets are
allowed to use their given environment and the accouterments it offers –
microphones, mic stands, the stage itself.” Interestingly, he doesn’t read
the part stating that the rule’s “intent is to keep the focus on the words
rather than objects.”
The bout continues with round four and another group poem from
Manhattan. “This is the great first line which sets the tone of the poem,
grabs your attention,” they announce while tag-teaming on lines in
self-referential commentary, “And this next funny line doesn’t let you down
– no, no, it’s funnier than that first line! … You see, the gist of the
poem is we’re writing a generalized poem because, because who can be
specific about a topic like ‘blah blah blah’?” They seem to respond to
Albuquerque’s impassioned plea for politics: “when suddenly the poem got
political,” they exclaim, while droning “POLITICS POLITICS POLITICS”
repeatedly, adding “Knock-knock, who’s there? Emotional manipulation,
snappy one-liners … leaving no button un-pushed – family: I hate my
father, I love my mother, I miss my sister!” With playful mocking of other
poems, they close: “This is the end line that makes you cream your pants
… throw your panties on stage, and: fuck me after the show!” 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.
[Chuck Perkins from Team Bellwood, photo by Benjamin Ortiz]
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 Dan Ferri and Reggie Gibson, who console each
other. Ferri is visibly upset, but enthusiastic: “We did what we did with
integrity.” Gibson answers, “I was so glad you dropped that piece! You
nailed that motherfucker!” Ferri agrees, “I wouldn’t have been able to
forgive myself if I had read ‘The Bald Guy.'” Ferri is talking about
nailing points versus staying true to the word. This is the double-edged
sword of combining poetry with performance, iambs with slams, writing with
shucking & jiving. A fan comes up and says, “your writing blew away
anything around you – you guys should have won,” and the Bellwood boys seem
It ain’t over ’til it’s over
I’m at the Electric Lounge, the home of Austin’s local slam, for
the individual competition semi-finals. The place is packed, and few chairs
are available to the mostly standing audience. Organizers have brought up
an interlude of mariachis for “local flavor,” and I have to excuse their
ignorance to the truly Tejano sounds of conjunto because the mariachis are
doing a cookin’ version of “Jailhouse Rock.” Chuck Perkins grabs my tape
recorder so he can mock-interview some ladies, and so I head out to the
parking lot where poets are mulling over the semi-finals wreckage.
I marvel at the variety of backgrounds, persuasions, identities,
political viewpoints, and professions from around these states represented,
as folks sit on concrete abutments and talk shop. Congratulating Keith
Roach on New York’s triumph in their last bout, Albuquerque’s Danny Solis
also seems to comment on Team Manhattan when he says, “I’m so tired of this
soulless pop culture bullshit Real World MTV crap.” A few minutes later,
Bob Holman walks by Keith Roach, and they shake hands like old buddies. As
I walk back into the lounge, Tarin Towers rushes the door, citing a
“security problem.”
I squeeze my way back just in time to see scorekeepers tabulating
maniacally as people from the crowd jump to correct math errors. 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,
He repeats this last refrain and wails into an air-jammed guitar
simulation, as the crowd jumps from their seats to affirm Gibson’s ultimate
number-one standing going into finals.
Back in the parking lot, poets sit in circles with backpacks like
cashed-out ravers, while New York and Albuquerque team members discuss the
protests against Manhattan. New York City’s Stephen Colman mentions to
Danny Solis that he once saw Beau Sia perform the duet from the semis bout
as a solo piece, which would bolster Albuquerque’s protest that Sia broke
the rules by being primary author of two poems performed. The discussion
gets heated when Colman says he doesn’t want to get involved in the
protest. Solis yells “fuck you,” as teammates restrain him and try to cool
down the argument. Kenn Rodriguez later tells me that “it’s not about us
getting into the finals. I think the Albuquerque team would gladly sit it
out if that’s what the slam community wants, because for us it’s about the
integrity of the slam and its rules.”
[Danny Solis from Team Albuquerque in Austin 1998, photo by Benjamin Ortiz]
On another front, Russell Gonzaga shows up with worry written all
over his face. It turns out that his match with the Mission District and
Cleveland turned into a score-settling blowout, after an attempt at a
formal protest against the Mission District failed. Deciding to read a poem
titled “Goodbye Kiss to the So-Called Western Civilization” especially for
that round, Gonzaga started off by saying “fuck the points – this is
personal: so-called ‘Mission District team,’ your deceit has broken my
heart,” and ended the poem with “I will make you wish you were never born.”
The poem went way over time, which destroyed San Francisco’s chances to win
– though Gonzaga had learned that numerically the two teams had little
chance of making it into finals anyway – and some of his own teammates
cried as he read the poem, which was perceived by Mission District female
teammates as a real threat of rape and physical harm.
The Mission District’s Eitan Kadosh argues that the poem itself was
a violation, commenting that “During the course of his meandering piece,
describing how much he ‘hated the Mission Team,’ he explained, in explicit
detail, how he would come into our homes and tie us to our beds, while
carrying out assorted acts of violence.”
Others, including Kelly McNally of Santa Cruz, suggest that Gonzaga didn’t
mean his poem as a real threat. “What I witnessed that night was not a
‘threat to rape and cause physical harm,'” says McNally. “What I saw was
the performance of a horrifyingly well-written poem that was designed to
elicit a response of emotional pain, which it did entirely too well, using
graphic images of metaphoric violence.”
Regardless, Gonzaga has gotten himself barred from walking into the
Electric Lounge tonight, and he says that Mission District teammates have
called the police. While we talk, Tarin Towers walks out, and Gonzaga tries
to call her over to explain himself, but she turns around and walks back
into the lounge with a hurried pace. Mission District teammates will later
stay up all night worried for their safety at the slightest sounds down the
hallway of their hotel.
Slammin’ Super-8 style
I, on the other hand, will stay up all night in a search for even
more poetry. Chuck Perkins insists on checking out the Super-8 Motel, where
Team New York City is reportedly chilling poolside. We head out with Da
Boogie Man and Cleveland slammaster David Snodgrass, a 29-year-old
industrial machinery worker with stringy hair sprouting from underneath an
oily baseball cap. It’s about 1:30 a.m., and Boogie repeatedly gets calls
and answers pages from Ohio on his cellular phone. “What’s up?” he answers.
“I’m at the national poetry slam, dog, like I told you!”
When we arrive at the Super-8, some folks have already dipped into
the pool, but they gather to start a round-robin reading. Poets riff off of
each other reciting treatises from memory, and Team Montreal’s Debbie Young
says, “Damn! We’re some poetry fiends here!” Just when I’m about to nod off
in a parking lot oil puddle, another poem starts up. The reading goes on
until about 5:30 a.m. when Kenn Rodriguez arrives with Albuquerque
teammates. He’s back from the protest meeting, where Manhattan was found
free from penalty. Kenn looks like death warmed over, and neither team has
made it into the finals.
[Da Boogie Man from Cleveland, slammin’ at the Super 8, photo by Benjamin Ortiz]
The republic rolls out of bed
Despite last night’s revelries, everyone convenes at the Electric
Lounge at 10:30 a.m., dodging the light spritz that becomes a lawn watering
and later a downpour. Every participant is welcome to the slammasters
meeting, one of two yearly gatherings to decide rules and take care of
business. The other meeting happens in the spring in Chicago, where the
National Slam Executive Council presides. But this meeting is where
democracy in the fullest sense takes precedence, where every participant
can voice concerns and vote on immediate business. Less a formal convention
than a measuring of the communal vibe, this meeting is meant to take care
of the bad blood and conflicts that have come up before the slam heads into
finals tonight, where Los Angeles, New York City, Cleveland, and Dallas
will be competing for the championship.
Over bagels and coffee, participants take turns going around the
room to pose questions about what qualifies as an ongoing venue and what
qualifies as a team. Marc Smith, president-for-life of the national slam,
explains regulations in his down-to-earth nasally rusty Chicago accent. He
expresses discomfort with the idea of creating more rules on top of rules,
which is against the spirit of the slam.
Suggestions are made to hire independent auditors to eliminate math
errors. As comments go around the room, someone voices a hopeful “Peace for
all poets.” Everyone responds enthusiastically, but reports follow of slam
poets serving as judges in some of the bouts, a possible violation of the
slam’s honor system. More suggestions: David Snodgrass calls for opening
the national budget to scrutiny.
The issue of stripping during a performance is brought up, since
the option is not available equally to women as to men. That’s when Team
Austin’s Genevieve Van Cleve lodges a complaint against Clebo Rainey, a
Team Dallas member who ripped his shirt off during a semi-finals reading of
his poem “Rarefied in Arkansas.” Taking her own shirt off and standing
topless, she reads from a statement in an emotionally charged voice: “in
all his rarefied glory, no one would accuse Clebo of using his breasts to
get a better score or a better job. I know, the slam is not responsible for
righting the inequities of our culture … however … we must assure that
our words are not enhanced or underscored by a nakedness not available to
the entire community … I swear, if that shirt equaled two-tenths of a
point, if that shirt had stayed on my very very good friend’s body, I might
be on the stage at the Paramount tonight performing poems … The prop law
needs to be changed at slammaster’s in the spring.”
In her comments, she suggests that Team Dallas benefited unfairly
from Clebo’s stripping, though Team Austin member Ernie Cline comments, “We
lost to Dallas fair and square. The opinions Genevieve expressed about the
competition being unfair are her own.” Regardless, Van Cleve’s statement
opens a floodgate of issues to debate, including the prop and costume rules
and whether a new rule needs to be made. Marc Smith breaks in: “This is a
scenario where part of our community has to be sensitive to other parts; we
have to listen to what the women are telling us.” Attention then turns to
Rainey, a black-clad potbellied musician-turned-poet who drawls in
response: “last year at slammaster’s meeting this came up, and I stood up
and said to everyone, ‘Just tell me what the fucking rule is, and I’ll do
it.'” He mentions also that he had the poem and his stripping approved by
slam officials before he performed it. But for tonight, since the issue has
forced his hand, he’ll perform “Rarefied” without stripping, as a gesture
of concession to Van Cleve and Team Austin.
Cheers follow and die down when Russell Gonzaga raises his hand to
speak, apologizing to Team Mission District: “I’m so sorry for what I did
last night … I turned it into one of the worst experiences that I ever
had with poetry.” He apologizes to his own team as well, and admits that
his actions were inappropriate. Applause meets his apology, and afterward
people congratulate Gonzaga for his admission. One poet says that she had
been similarly insulted at a prior slam, but that no one had apologized to
her. Gonzaga accepts comments with a weary, defeated look.
Before the meeting moves on to deciding sites for subsequent
nationals, Danny Solis makes a statement: “This is a feast, and when you
have a feast, wolves will come. Some people want to make a living off being
in the gray area. So be it. But I think we need to … eliminate those
areas as a family, so we won’t be dishonored and exploited … I invite
everybody to put everything aside – if you had bad experiences, enjoy
Someone follows up with the comment, “watch what you say to the
press, because nothing is off the record.” He cites past coverage that
painted the nationals as an orgy of sex and drugs. “Don’t let them paint us
as degenerates!” From the back of the room, a chant goes up: “We are
degenerates!” As I walk out to catch some fresh air, I notice that Dan
Ferri has a T-shirt on that reads: “The points are not the point; THE POINT
IS POETRY.” Plato wanted to cast all poets from his republic, but what
about a republic made entirely of poets? This republic has met its on-going
crisis of legitimation, and has survived. Just in time for the finals
Meeting the master
Amid waves of chaotic aural overload, a 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. Skimming camp
humor from Mexicans rankles me a bit – especially since El Poeta’s Boston
accent mangles the pronunciation of his Spanish name – so I head out to the
lobby, where rent-a-cops are watching the doors like attack dogs. I manage
to convince them to let a few recognizable poets in without hassle.
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!
Back in the auditorium, a pre-competition poetry showcase includes
Amanda Nazario and Beau Sia doing the protest-drawing piece from
semi-finals. Before they can start, someone yells “NO PROPS!” This audience
hasn’t necessarily been following the whole event, so this comment is lost
on most, though it doesn’t pass without scattered snickering.
Phil West emcees the first few rounds of the team competition,
looking dead tired with the demands of keeping the slam running. After the
first round, New York City leads with 28.3, while Dallas follows (28.1),
with LA in third (27.9) and Cleveland trailing with 27.1. The second round
begins without missing a beat.
Dallas steps up with a group piece on phone sex, verbally and
physically simulating spankings and masturbation: “I’ll jerk you off with
my words.” In an interesting juxtaposition, New York’s Lynne Procope
follows with commanding presence and gravity in her words: “We be
pretenders, pretenders to the position of prophet, we don the mask of poets
late at night, and between the smokes of the lyrical jokes we slam up on
this mike.” Her serious tone plays off the hoots and hollers from the prior
piece: “we forget that this shit goes beyond Gil Scott, it goes beyond that
grand slam finals pot, this goes beyond all these half-ass rhymes you’ve
long forgot … everything we say must be the truth, because the innocents
are listening, and it will all be held against us, which we do not hold for
ourselves … do you know the definition of your revolution, or are you
just pretending when you step up to this mike? One-two, one-two: this thing
is on.”
At the end of the second round, positions have shifted slightly:
New York at 57.3, LA with 56.8, Dallas with 56.6, and Cleveland still
trailing with 56. Tension is high, but an intermission follows with poets
pouring into the lobby for drinks or outside for smokes. Vancouver’s swank
Ms. Spelt, a pale skinny boy, shows much love in the lobby with his taffeta
skirt, boa, and silky dinner gloves. Delirious embraces are exchanged, and
hallucinatory sleep deprivation makes for an edgy vibe when poets file back
in for the individual finals.
Marc Smith takes the stage to emcee, saying “My name is Marc
Smith,” greeted by a resounding “SO WHAT!” Patricia Smith joins him to
handle the six indie finalists who will go two rounds each for the
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 repeats his Hendrix poem to a standing ovation and shouts of “10!
10! 10! 10!!!”
In an under-rated performance, Vancouver’s Cass King takes the
stage and endures catcalls at her appearance: “Nice dress baby!” She opens
with a rendition of “The Girl From Ipanema”: “and when she passes, each one
Strutting and dancing around, she explodes into a cabaret-style scat like
she was expecting to get heckled and had her words ready to counter, with
the crowd clapping along to her rhythm and rhyme.
In the second round, Roanoke’s Patricia Johnson expresses the most
volatile engagement of racial issues yet, bringing up the incident in
Jasper, Texas, and her own cousin’s violent death, challenging the audience
to right wrongs and be accountable. Her poem goes crushingly over time and
dooms her to last place, but Patricia Smith notes: “Sometimes you got poems
you just gotta do.” She also mentions that journalists Molly Ivins and Dan
Rather are in the house. Cheers and cross-cheers fill the house, with the
audience taking sides on who should win, but the championship ultimately
goes to Reggie Gibson, with Derrick Brown in second, and Brian Comiskey in
“This is sadistic,” says Marc Smith, “we got these other teams
backstage waiting to come out!” They’ve been waiting for over an hour,
strategizing and deciding which pieces to throw at the crowd, anticipating
the other teams’ moves. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez brings 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 City’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’ … we’re closing out this country the way we began,
so step up for the hottest selling commodity – that’s right, no waiting
lines for HIV – condoms and needle exchange, they’re a hard-to-sell thing
for the right wing, so if you’re a junkie or a fag, rent to own your own
body bag – now, while America’s on sale … 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-IDON’TCAREABOUTSHIT 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
through the coming year about rules and definitions of poetry, and the
conflicts will never entirely be resolved. But the question, as Cass King
put it, remains: “I know it’s entertainment, but is it A-R-T – is it
AAAAAART?” 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.
September 1998, San Antonio Current, Word: The Monthly Guide to the Arts in Dallas, and LiP Magazine

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