Despite the maps on the walls, the mid-afternoon hour, and the lack of beer and liquor, a lecture hall in the UW Humanities Building has the aura of a downtown bar after midnight.
Throngs of poets enter through the double doors, and the result is cacophony as the Nerd Slam gets started at the National Poetry Slam on Thursday. Cheers of "Nerds Rock!" echo, and the blackboard at the front of the room proclaims, "Hey you fucking nerds, welcome to class."
As attendees continue to filter in and take their seats in the perpetually uncomfortable student venue, Nerd Slam host and creator Shappy Seasholtz gestures to a table on the stage and yells, "Hey nerds, these comic books aren't going to give themselves away." This prompts a mass scramble as a scrum of eager nerds descend on the pile donated by Westfield Comics in Middleton, complete with whoops, screams and cheers.
Minutes later, Shappy is hollering for everyone to sit down and shut up. "As you all know, our job as poets is to bring voice to the voiceless," he begins. "Now there's a group out there that I feel has not been represented well on the page or the stage. Of course, I am speaking of zombies." He immediately lurches into one of a series of poems he's written from the perspective of the undead, and the crowd of course goes wild.
Next up is co-host Robbie Q. Telfer, a member of the Green Mill team from Chicago. His piece is a little ditty about how much being a nerd can put a damper on your sex life, and how only acquiring a
Cadillac Escalade Chevy Cavalier can save it.
Once the crowd is warmed up with these sacrificial poems, Robbie explains the slam format. Everyone who wants to have a chance at competing is to write his or her name on a piece of paper, along with info about their "nerd area of expertise." There are separate drop boxes for men, women and group entries. There are no judges, no scores, and no winners.
"Two people will come up at a time and they will have to compete in a nerd-off," Robbie explains. One of a panel of three nerd experts will then ask each nerd a question that falls within their said area of expertise. Nerds who get the question wrong "will not be able to compete because they are not a nerd," he continues. The crowd boos in response and begins to chant 'NOT A NERD! NOT A NERD!"
The areas of expertise at this particular Nerd Slam ran the gamut from Trekdom and the Harry Potter series to '80s comic superheroes to Kevin Smith movies. And, ladies and gentlemen, to the non-nerd these questions are ridiculously hard. For your consideration: "In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Samaritan Snare,' what was the alien race that kidnapped Geordi La Forge?" And so it went.
It isn't all square talk. Though the overt theme was indeed nerdiness, the slammers have plenty to say on a variety of topics, including racial stereotypes to true love.
The slam's first official competitor, Paulie, performs an enthusiastic piece about the woman of his dreams. "I will know that I have found the woman of my dreams when she agrees to have sex to the "Imperial March" from Star Wars," he spits. As the poet gets into it, he leaps from the stage onto the first row of chairs in the audience, and the crowd loves it. Finger snaps, cheering and claps erupt in waves throughout the room when he finishes.
A group piece performed by Tony Jackson and Dashay Moonbeam of Austin, Texas, receives one of the most rowdy responses. Their piece was an attempt to dispel the myth that there are no black nerds, and a call to all young black nerds in the closet to be proud of their brains and inquisitiveness. "Let it flow," Dashay screams at his partner, "Let the nerdiness flow brother."
"We are black nerds," the pair proclaim. "This is for all the black kids who used to tell me that's mighty white of you/ every time I pick up a science book/ this is for the white kids that used to tell me there are no black elves or paladins in Dungeons and Dragons."
Nerd Slam was originally created by Shappy for the 2002 National Poetry Slam in Minneapolis. Hailing from Astoria in Queens and a manager at the Bowery Poetry Club on Manhattan's Lower East Side, he is appearing in the forthcoming cinematic celebration of nerddom that is the film Fanboys.
"I feel like the Poetry Slam in general is sort of a nerdy event, and I've been to a lot of comic book conventions and Star Trek conventions, and it's the same sort of vibe," he says. "So I'm like, why not try to put that to the test and have an actual poetry slam where you come up with poems about Buffy or Star Wars or comic book characters, what have you. They get bigger and bigger every year and that's pretty exciting."
This slam was well-attended, and the audience was by far the most rambunctious crowd I've witnessed at the National Poetry Slam so far, not to mention the most interactive. I understand now why so many await the nerd slam each year, and why Madison team member Evy Gildrie-Voyles said it was the event she was most looking forward to besides the competition.
For the performers, it's a nice break in a rough and tumble competitive atmosphere. And I have to say, it's infectious.