Some of you who read my scrawl regularly might be surprised to see Jeff Liles' vids from the Southwest Shootout 2010 regional poetry slam posted here, as I'm not generally a fan of spoken word performance. But I was floored by Dallas poet Jason Carney's performance at the Kessler in Oak Cliff back in March, so I was motivated to check out at least one night of this two-night event at the Kessler last weekend (had to work the following night, unfortunately). And I'm always happy to be proven wrong, if it means I get to experience some transformational art.
Slam poetry, they say, was originated by Marc Smith in Chicago in the '80s. ("WHO CARES?") Poets recite their own works and are rated by five pre-selected audience members on a scale of 1-10 (to one decimal place), with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest. High and low scores are discounted, so a perfect score is 30. Judges are instructed to weigh the poem and the delivery equally. Audiences are encouraged to respond, but not to the extent where they drown out the performance. ("RESPECT THE POET!")
When my sweetie and I arrived at the Kess after dinner at a Salvadoran place up the street and a visit to Cliff Notes bookstore, which also serves as the Kessler's box office, the teams and solo poets were being assigned slots. There'd be two bouts each in the big and small rooms, a 4x4 (four rounds with four teams) in the big and a 3x3 (three rounds with three teams) in the little, plus two "head-to-heads" with indie poets in each room following the team bouts. Jeff Liles said that the event had already set an attendance record for the Kess, and would set a bar sales record -- all with a fill-in bar staff.
We took seats up in the balcony and dug the jams that two DJs from Hip Hop Helps Heal
were spinning. I wound up being a judge for bouts in both the big and little rooms, drafted by co-host Ryler Dustin, a Washington State native now living and pursuing his MFA in Houston, and then by a cat whose name I didn't catch when I went to buy a beer between bouts. Ryler was also the "sacrificial poet" -- the one who gets up before the competition starts to allow the judges to "calibrate" their scoring -- before the bout in the big room. (Because I was scoring, I didn't catch many of the poets' names -- mea culpa
Of the teams that competed in that bout, the one from Killeen seemed strongest to me, poet for poet, although they wound up taking second place to hosts Dallas Grind. Their two most memorable entries were one by a cat that reminded me of Mike Guinn
who used to host the old Black Dog Tavern slams here in the Fort -- cat definitely seemed like the father-figure of the team. His poem was about a mother with Alzheimer's, a topic that definitely resonated for my sweetie 'n' me. The other one that made a big impression was one by the husband of a deployed soldier (at least that was the perspective he took in his poem, and unusual but very evocative one). If it brings me to tears, I reckon it's working.
For the preliminaries, Dallas Grind's Carney chose a lighter, comedic piece about his kids which I'd heard him recite before -- fun, but not as impactful as others in his trick bag (the one in the vid I reposted earlier, for example). His teammate Stephen Sargent had a powerful delivery, but also 'fessed up to being a preacher's kid, which let you know where it was coming from. The team from Oklahoma City, led by ultimate indy champ Melissa May, seemed a little heavy on the "he/she done me wrong" kind of poems that are my least favorite, along with "me and my pen against the world" poems (the poetry equivalent of bands writing songs about being in bands -- equally silly IMO).
Austin TheySpeak, a young team fielded by the Texas Youth Word Collective
, were on fire with passion, which sometimes made their performances shrill. (Hopefully their preparation for their next competition will include working on how to adjust the mic.) They favored group performances; I almost missed the point of one piece which was a dialogue between a student and a teacher because the young man in the teacher role used the same voice and inflections he had reciting a more confessional piece earlier. In the last round, they used four voices, which only made many of the words unintelligible.
In the indy head-to-heads, most memorable was Gus Wood, who wasn't on the floor when his name was called but made up for it with a moving tribute to Vincent Price (kid likes to eulogize his role models). As MC, Denise Jolly did a sterling job of keeping the energy high and making sure the poets' efforts were recognized.
I was a little worried when the second bout in the little room got started -- acoustics didn't seem as good as in the big room (no Paul Quigg sound mix, for one thing); both the sacrificial poet's verse and the MC's intro were nearly inaudible over the sound of someone (a poet, I think -- ironic, in the non-Alanis Morisette sense) ordering a drink. Fortunately, both sound and lighting improved as the bout progressed, with teams from Ozark, Atlanta, and "Parts Unknown" butting heads.
Ozark immediately impressed with a fella who went through about ten characters in the span of...10 seconds over the 3:10 allowed for each performance, which wound up costing his team 10 points off their total score. He gave the uncomfortable sensation (probably unfounded) of being the kind of cat who might get dusted and do a similar metamorphosis every weekend. Also worthy was a group piece which pitted a classic rock fan against a metalhead. (You got the impression that the two poets that performed it were cast counter to type, too.) Atlanta was the most cerebral team overall, and two of their poets were responsible for one of the evening's best group performances, which overlaid military metaphors over the "he done me wrong" theme.
In the indy head-to-heads, young soldier (or ex-GI) Madden overcame an Ozark competitor by taking "she done me wrong" to a very different place. Dain Michael Down from "Parts Unknown" showed savvy as a competitor, winning out over an Atlanta poet whom I felt was stronger overall by closing with a deeply personal piece that was more impactful.
Tough being a judge, but also a privilege, and I promise to stop running away whenever I hear spoken word mentioned. At its best, slam combines the most affecting aspects of great literature and great theater. And it rawks.