Gathering in a muggy UW Red Gym last Tuesday night, the five spoken word performers representing Madison in the National Poetry Slam were intent on their final preparations for the big show this week.
At this point, it's almost all repetition. The Madison team has been meeting for months, starting shortly after city finals competition back in May. Since that time, they've been collectively choosing the strongest pieces from each performer and amassing their verbal ammunition. As the national competition approached, they started meeting more frequently, using the time to practice their pieces, get team feedback, and tweak their performances. Slam. Critique. Repeat.
"We each have two to three solo pieces that we're working on and we run them and critique them each time we rehearse," says Evy Gildrie-Voyles, a Madison team member, coach and events director who has been to two previous National Poetry Slams. "We all have different writing styles, and some of us edit more than others," she adds, glancing over at teammate Ryan Hurley.
"Why are you looking at me like that?," Hurley asks.
"Because you edit constantly; because you're doing it right now!," she answers.
Hurley indicates that he's just making a few small adjustments to a piece, prompting the team's youngest member Danez Smith, 18, to yell, "No! No! Don't you touch that damn poem."
According to the quintet, they have quite an arsenal. With approximately 19 pieces rehearsed, tweaked and approved, they have plenty of options to choose from, and are more prepared than the Madison teams that have competed before them.
"It's nice to be in the position where you have things to choose from," said Gildrie-Voyles. "The first year we went we had three people on the team instead of four, so you had to do every single poem every single night that you possibly knew. We get more prepared each year, and I definitely feel good about this year." Across from her, Eric Mata, another National Poetry Slam veteran, nods his agreement.
So does Smith, who adds, "It'll be great not to be writing anything the night before."
Besides solo pieces, the team has also developed a number of group works, which involve two or more team members on stage at the same time. Gildrie-Voyles explains that this can be anything from two people switching off lines of a poem or multiple characters within a poem to vocal effects much like backup singers. Generally, the group pieces are written by one team member, then adapted for more voices, though they have collaborated simultaneously on some pieces during this process.
With only hours remaining before the National Poetry Slam begins here in Madison, the hometown team is anxious and excited, and ready to compete. They have friends on different teams around the country that they're excited to see and competition they're eager to match up against.
"I always enjoy watching the smaller cities perform, just to see what they are writing and working on," says Mata. "I know I'm going to get really good writing from New York, Seattle, Portland and Chicago. But there's one team that always shows up from a Native American reservation and they always go up and do their thing, not worried about their scores. They just want to perform and come hang out with poets."
"On a cocky note, I'm the youngest out of everybody," jokes Smith, "so I'm looking forward to seeing the big names cry." The team members all admit that there tends to be a crying component to slam.
Gildrie-Voyles is eager to see a friend, Karen Garrabrandt, who is slam master for the team from Decatur. The community in suburban Atlanta, and slam around the nation, recently lost one of its poets, Shannon Leigh, who placed third in the solo competition at the 2007 National Poetry Slam. There will be a tribute for her at the Bartell Theatre on Thursday afternoon.
Whether it's their first or their third national slam, all five Madison team members admit to being nervous about the competition. It's an enjoyable anxious anticipation, though. With 80-some teams bringing their own material to the table, it's impossible to expect any home team not to be on edge. The hometown team is confident in its ability to compete at a very high level, though.
There are another 75 teams preparing for the national competition as well, with the added cost and task of traveling to and staying in Madison for the event. Fundraisers and send-off slams have been held around the country, with online reports to be found everywhere from Kalamazoo to Honolulu, and Tucson to Worcester.
The 2008 National Poetry Slam and accompanying "Lyrics on the Lake" festival will be held from Tuesday, August 5 through Saturday, August 9 with gatherings, competitions, and parties at a variety of venues throughout downtown Madison. The full schedule of events is available online. The complete bout draw for these opening rounds, which includes times and locations for each competition, is available here.
The Madison team's first round bouts are scheduled for Wednesday, August 6 at 8 p.m. in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and Thursday, August 7 at 10 p.m. in the Brink Lounge. Should the team score among the top 20 after these bouts, it will move on to the semifinals, from which four will emerge for a shot at the national title.