Poem on the Range

Verse comes to worse at the National Poetry Slam.

It's a sticky Friday night in Katie Wirsing's cramped Capitol Hill walkup, and "Puff the Magic Dragon" is turning into a real pain in the ass.

"You've got to keep it silly, silly," says Ted Vaca, sipping Sierra Nevada as he sits on a gigantic inflatable couch, absentmindedly clicking the buttons of a stopwatch in his hand. "I want to see you dancing. I want to see you celebrating. I want to see you absolutely ecstatic."

If Andrea Gibson were writing a poem about this moment, "ecstatic" is not a word she'd use. After two hours of rehearsal, Gibson, Wirsing and Ian Dougherty are tense, tired and frustrated. Vaca's put them through four consecutive readings of "Puff" -- a tongue-mangling ode to childhood that plays on the famous folk song and is exhausting just to watch. No matter how many times they do it, they just can't get it right, and they're a little sick of trying. Her dark eyes glassy, Wirsing pulls listlessly at the band of her low-slung jeans while Gibson, squatting on the floor, makes monkey faces at Vaca.

Andrea Gibson
John Johnston
Andrea Gibson
Ken Arkind
John Johnston
Ken Arkind

"I can't tell if you're listening to me or mocking me," Vaca says.

"I'm listening to you, Teddy," Gibson says. "You said to be silly, so I'm being silly."

Since coming together as a team, Wirsing, Gibson, Dougherty, Ken Arkind and Paul Lipman have spent much of their time together. Most Friday, Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights find them reciting poetry, listening to poetry, trying to get their brains around how to perform poetry. As the Mercury Cafe competitive slam team, they represent Denver in regional competitions throughout the United States, and the curly-haired Vaca is their coach, mentor and occasional tormentor.

"The team can be as good as any if they work at it," he says. "Let's just say I like to get creative in the way I make them stretch their abilities."

Vaca argues with them over word choices (he recoils at using "like" in a poem, for example, while Gibson and the others think the word has its place), chastises them for fidgeting while reading or rushing through a dramatic moment, makes them throw down for audiences both willing and unwilling -- sometimes in the middle of a park, or on a street corner. The regimen has been intense from the get-go, when an April audition at the Mercury determined who got slots on the 2003 team. By mid-July, it's all-consuming.

It has to be. In less than three weeks, the Merc team will load into a rental car and make the eighteen-hour drive to Chicago, site of this year's National Poetry Slam, which draws the fiercest talents from the world of performance poetry. Vaca's a veteran of the event. In 1995, while a member of the Asheville, North Carolina, slam team, he won the whole damn thing. With the Merc team, he's been to the Nationals four times but has never progressed past the semi-finals.

This year he thinks the team can do better. A few weeks before, it nabbed a regional championship in Arizona when Gibson, the captain, slayed the audience in Sedona, cutting through round after round and outscoring other contenders two nights in a row. Everyone feels confident she can do the same in Illinois. If things go well, they all can.

But first, they've got to get a handle on "Puff" and approximately a million other things. In order to be used in competition, "Puff" must clock in at three minutes or less. During the last try, it ran a bloated 3:07:48. "Puff" is a mouthful, a rapid-fire screed that moves from very quiet to very loud, and tonight, like most nights, the team's members are taking turns fucking it up. The first time, the word "driveway" lodged in Wirsing's throat. Then Dougherty dropped a cue that botched the rhythm. On the next try, Gibson blew a line about dancing on her grandmother's couch, then started laughing so hard she wound up writhing on the floor. Soon everyone in the room was snorting and squealing, absolutely hysterical for no good reason.

Vaca likes the team members to stay in the moment -- he's forever reminding them to "focus" -- but tonight he lets them laugh and laugh. They need some relief. They still have a lot to do and a lot to worry about -- like the fact that the Merc team isn't even guaranteed a spot on the National Poetry Slam performance roster and its members may have to head for Chicago before they know whether they'll have a chance to compete. Everyone is behind schedule. Wirsing hasn't memorized "India," a solo piece she was supposed to finish last week. Dougherty and Arkind have to get square on the beatboxing routine they'll do in the background of one of Gibson's poems; at the moment, they sound like they're hyperventilating, not scratching.

And right now, Lipman, the team alternate, has to get to work. Scribbling notes on a pad of paper, occasionally manning the stopwatch for Vaca, he's hopelessly overdue for his doorman shift at Cafe Netherworld, the goth bar that's about a thirty-second walk from Wirsing's place.

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