Tuesday, July 28, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Poets gear up for next week's national slam in West Palm

Illustration by Pat Crowley.

By Paul Lomartire

Slammed by syntax. Pummeled by a poem.

The world heavyweight championship of words delivered with attitude is headed for West Palm Beach in the form of the 20th annual National Poetry Slam Aug. 4 to 8.

And yes, fans, this is a competition every bit as heated as baseball or boxing.

"This is blood, sweat and tears poetry delivered live inches from your face," says Henry Sampson, co-director of this championship edition. "Our poets take the very best elements of stand-up comedy, dramatic monologue and performance-based poetry and deliver it with the energy of hip-hop, punk rock and jazz."

Sixty-eight teams are set to compete in preliminary rounds held at various West Palm Beach Clematis Street nightclubs Aug. 4-6 followed by a single-elimination of the top 16 teams in semifinal bouts Aug. 7. A final four will hit the stage at the Palm Beach County Convention Center and compete for the $2,000 top prize Aug. 8.

The four and five-member poetry teams, usually ranging in age from 20s to 40s, get three minutes to perform each original poem with no costumes, props or music allowed. The five judges for each four-team slam are chosen at random from the audience with Olympic-style scoring: 10 points is tops.

"If you have an opinion and a pulse you can be a judge," says Eirik Ott, the marketing director for the Austin, Texas-based National Poetry Slam. Ott was a member of the 1999 Slam Championship team from San Francisco.

"Our final was in front of 3,000 people in Chicago," Ott recalls. "Imagine the roar of a rock show, but it was poetry. There are over 100 venues that host slams throughout the year in this country plus slams throughout Europe, so being the best, world champion is powerful mojo."

Karen Finneyfrock was a member of the Seattle slam team
at last year's slam in Madison, Wis.

Tony Jackson hopes to feel that mojo in West Palm Beach. His Austin Poetry Slam Team finished third at last year's Final in Madison, Wis.

"We as individual artists do this all year long, but we have three to four months on a team where you're actually bringing your skills together," says the 36-year-old software engineer. "We write together and come up with team pieces," he explains. "Typically, you've got four slots in each competition and you can perform with other team mates or by yourself."

Like any competition, there is strategy to consider. Top teams have a bag of A material so they can be nimble enough to read the room and the random judges that have been chosen. Audience members are encouraged to hoot and holler their opinions at each competition.

"You have to look at the audience and figure out what the best thing is for that audience," says Jackson, "whether it's a dramatic reciting of a poem to a comedy routine. What will people in West Palm Beach respond to the best?

"You're also looking at what has done the best so far at that competition. If someone does something serious and heart-wrenching you might go that direction if it plays well or you can do comedy if that plays well. We found in Madison that other teams couldn't bring the laughter that we could and comedy did well because it was younger crowds," Jackson said.

A West Palm Beach team competing in the national slam is called The Stage. That's the poetry slam home team at R.J.'s Restaurant on 45th Street. The team captain and slam master is Therese Hill, a 14-year veteran of the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office.

"We're going to have fun," says Hill, whose nickname is Chunky. "I have been to the nationals six times. I placed fifth in the nation in 2004. I went to the individual world poetry slam in Canada in 2006 and placed in the top 20."

Hill's current team comes from a variety of occupations. They each competed to be a member of The Stage.

"We have an actress/playwright Rachel Finley; a teacher in the prison system, Derinaa Parker; a paralegal, Desiree Karnis, who also coaches youth poetry teams; and Jashua Sa-Ra, a teacher of African drums, poetry and dance," says Hill. "We've been working together as The Stage for three or four months."

Hill first saw a poetry slam in Fort Lauderdale in 1998. "I was drawn to the fact that there is a mass audience who will listen to what you say. And maybe in that mass audience there's one person who needs to hear your message."

The final was awarded to West Palm Beach, says Ott, for a couple reasons. "The cultural makeup was a main point because it's black, white, Cuban, Dominican, Haitian -- a real melting pot -- and that's what poetry slams are all about.

"Another reason," Ott continues, "is that for the past five years some top slam teams have come from the Deep South and we've never had a final in the South. "And we've never had a final near a beach. How can you not want a final in a place called West Palm Beach?"

Paul Lomartire is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

Bouts, and best bets

The preliminary and semifinal bouts will be at the following venues: Dr. Feelgood's (219 Clematis); O'Shea's (531 Clematis); Respectable Street Cafe (518 Clematis); The Lounge (517 Clematis); Monarchy (221 Clematis); 10@2/Roxy's (309 Clematis). One insider who wished to remain anonymous says these four preliminary slam bouts are the ones to watch:

Madison vs. Nuyorican (NYC) vs. Boston vs. Houston (7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4, The Lounge)

New York City's Nuyorican Poets Cafe fields one of the strongest teams in the nation year after year, and this year they are going toe-to-toe with the exhilarating team from Boston's Cantab Bar. these are two titans of slam poetry throwing everything they have at each other, and it is sure to be a bout full of verbal artillery.

Charlotte vs. Berkeley vs. San Diego vs. Seattle (7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5, Monarchy)

Any slam bout with Charlotte is going to be a devastating show, but this one pits the two-time national champions with superb teams from Berkeley and Seattle. San Diego is a relatively new team, but the word is that they are smoking hot, too, so this bout could be the hottest bout of the entire prelims. Not to be missed.

Austin vs. Forth Worth vs. Dallas vs. Minneapolis (9 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5, Monarchy)

This bout features three heavyweight Texas teams with a long histories and strong rivalries plus a young group of smoking performers from Minneapolis. Each team knows this is the hardest bout in their prelims, so each team will be bringing their best poems and their most ferocious performances. Should be smoking!

Richmond vs. Boston Lizard Lounge vs. San Antonio vs. NYC Urbana (7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 6, Monarchy)

The NYC Urbana team always brings the fire and have won more than one national championship, and they are going against really strong teams from Richmond and Boston's Lizard Lounge. Tough bout, and way too hard to call.

1 comment:

Rich said...

If you REALLY want a best bet, you had better get your behind over on to Roxy's on Tuesday night for the 9 pm bout between Amarillo, TX vs. St. Louis vs. Atllanta, GA vs. Albuquerque, NM. Word on the street is that Albuquerque's team is going to be blowing the doors off the venue!