Josh Healey, Eric Mata, Ryan Hurley, and Kyle 'El Guante' Myhre pose in front of the Paramount Theatre on Congress in downtown Austin during the final competition in the 2007 National Poetry Slam.
The highest praise I can give the 2007 National Poetry Slam is that it melted a little bit of this cynic's cold heart. While there were still formulaic poems, style-over-substance poems and even a few politically troubling poems, for the most part the slam was pretty great.
I think slam poetry as a medium is maturing -- while some still follow the tried-and-true formulas developed by the likes of Patricia Smith, Saul Williams, Mayda del Valle, Talaam Acey, Beau Sia and many others during the first big boom of the slam scene -- more are finding ways to innovate, to embrace the spirit of these pioneers without biting their styles.
I left Austin on Sunday inspired and anxious to write, and I think I can say the same for my teammates. If nothing else good came of the competition, that simple fact alone would make it all worthwhile.
So what can Madison expect in the next two years as the event relocates here? I think we're in for one of the most exciting National Poetry Slams ever. The first will, after all, take place mere months before the 2008 election, and you can bet that hundreds of poets from around the country will have something to say about that.
It will also follow the pilot year for the UW-Madison's First Wave Program. This program brings students who are proficient in the "urban arts" to UW to study what they love in a supportive environment. Many of these students are poets, and good ones at that. I'd really love to see the national slam have more youth involvement next year, and Madison is the perfect place to accomplish that.
Finally, Madison should be able to field a pretty amazing team next year. All the hype surrounding Nationals, the First Wave stuff and the steady growth of our local scene should ensure that whatever poets make the team are hungry and talented. It'd be great to see Madison on the finals stage next year... coming in second to whatever team I end up competing for, ha!
If you'd like to try and get on Madison's National Poetry Slam team for 2008, the process is pretty simple. The Urban Spoken Word Poetry Slam is held every third Saturday of the month at Genna's. If you place first or second in any of the slams from now through April of next year, you qualify to compete in the city finals in May. The top four from that slam will make up the team.
Like any arts community, the slam scene has its problems -- I've written about them in poems and articles before and won't rehash them here. Where slam is important, however, is in how it makes people excited about poetry, how it creates avenues for expression and affirmation, how it brings communities together. If you want to learn more about spoken word, here are some of my favorite contemporary performance poets:
- Saul Williams
- Patricia Smith
- Mayda del Valle
- Marc Smith
- Kevin Coval
- Climbing Poetree
- Beau Sia
- Anis Mojgani
- Roger Bonair-Agard
- Rachel McKibbens
- Flood the Hood with Dreams
- Buddy Wakefield
- Ragan Fox
- Suheir Hammad
As we were relaxing at the National Poetry Slam after-party on Saturday, Madison team member Ryan Hurley remarked to me how strange it was to be in a space that was so genuinely, beautifully diverse. Slam and spoken-word transcend divisions of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, age and geography in ways that those lines are very rarely crossed. While I promised in my introduction that I'd not over-glorify the scene, I do think that there's something special there.
For me, the points earned are not the point and the poetry itself is only a fraction of that point. Slam is about building community, and spoken word is small-d-democratic, independent media. As much as "revolution" is a dreadfully overused term in the scene, I have first-hand experience as a poet, activist and educator regarding how powerful poetry can be to young people, how helpful it can be to those in the prison system and how absolutely vital it can be to anyone who has ever felt silenced, oppressed or just plain pissed off.
The National Poetry Slam is only one manifestation of that energy, but it's a hell of an exciting one. You have one year, Madison. Get ready.