Poetry was treated less as a literary form and more as a spectator sport Saturday night as a large crowd packed into the Capitol Room at the Inn on the Park to witness the final slam competition of the Urban Spoken Word Poetry Collective's 2007 season. Eleven of Madison's best poets raised their voices and exposed their souls as they vied for five spots on Madison's National Poetry Slam team, which will compete with 74 other cities this August at the National Poetry Slam in Austin, Texas.
Slam poetry is a form of competitive performance poetry where the audience determines the winners. It has become very popular in major cities and on college campuses in recent decades.
There were no polite pauses or quiet Beatnik finger snaps at this poetry reading. Rather, it paralleled the atmosphere of a Southern Baptist church service as the audience alternated between boisterous demonstrations of approval -- not just after performances, but during them -- and cacophonous boos, which were regularly aimed at the five judges when they gave scores that were deemed stingy. And this was a restrained crowd compared to the audiences of the monthly slams hosted by the Urban Spoken Word Poetry Collective at Genna's Lounge, according to David Hart, co-founder of the Urban Spoken Word Collective and coach of this year's National Slam team.
After three rounds of competition, during which the poets used their respective three minutes to delve into issues ranging from physical and mental spousal abuse to the black-and-white morality of the Commander Keith character from the 1980s "Voltron" animated TV series, the slam organizers determined their five winners based on the judges' scoring and made an announcement: This year's National Poetry Slam team for Madison will consist of Ryan Hurley, Evy Gildrie-Voyles, Josh Healey, Kyle "El Guante" Myhre and Eric Mata, the night's champion. Three additional winners, Todd "Godson" Jones, KeaLynn Kees and Nicole Rainey, were selected to represent Madison in the Rust Belt Regional Poetry Slam in Columbus, Ohio this June.
When the competition was over, one name kept circulating among the mingling crowd: Ali Muldrow. The youngest of the night's poets, Muldrow was widely considered to have been robbed of a place on the national team. Her two pieces of the evening were highly personal works about the relationship of psychological labels to identity and the internal struggles of someone who chooses not to dodge the punches. She performed with the Madison team at the National Poetry Slam in 2005 when she was 18 years-old.
Other stand-out performances of the evening included Mata, who's strangely captivating voice, subtle composition and unapologetic style brought the audience to its feet several times, Kees, a local stand-up comic who dissected the myths and realities of rural Midwestern life with playful wit, and Gildrie-Voyles, whose poems seemed to shift instantly from poignant to vicious, from light-hearted to deeply-meaningful.
Madison will play host to the National Poetry Slam in 2008, according to event organizers. Thousands are expected to descend on the city to watch an anticipated 80 teams from across the country compete.
Myhre, who's in-your-face style and intelligent diction have made him somewhat of a celebrity locally both as a rapper and a spoken word artist, is excited about it. "Having the Nationals here should give the scene a shot the arm," he said, adding, "there's so much talent here, but it needs a larger audience."