Among the lines delivered at poetry slams, one is often repeated: "The point is not the points; the point is the poetry." This has never been more true than over the last week and a half in Denver, when all three of the city's national teams -- Slam Nuba, the Mercury Cafe team and teenage dreamers Minor Disturbance -- hosted annual grand slams to decide who makes this year's roster. With more than thirty poets qualified across the three competitions and only fifteen places in the final lineups, the past ten days have been passionate, poetic and, yes, pretty slamming.
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Slam Nuba: In every case, poets who compete to represent their teams at nationals must have won at least one slam during the previous year. Judges are selected randomly from the crowd, and control over the night's finale is entirely in their hands: After each poet, those brave enough -- and unprejudiced enough -- to take on the task raise numbers above the audience to indicate their scores, which are judged on the decimal system. Score creep is common, with judges getting points-happy as the night progresses, so they are often warned against the phenomenon.
Australian slam champion Luka Lesson began the night as the judges' first sacrificial lamb, er, test poet, with an alliterative piece in which he rolls through each letter of the alphabet. (For time and sheer intimidation factor, however, he cut it short at K.) More than a few tears fell as the poets echoed through the Crossroads Theater, and the crowd was the loudest of any grand-slam group this year. On stage, emotions ranged from quiet anger to desperate sorrow to uproarious humor, with poems about mixed-race heritage, skinny girls, ex-lovers, motherhood, coming out, sex, abortion and even slam poetry itself. The night's first perfect-ten score went to Suzi Q. Smith, the longtime Denver voice who helped organize the Women of the World Poetry Slam this year.
When it came time to announce the final team, the audience grew anxious -- and one poet was generous. When Bobby LeFebre, a repeat Slam Nuba member, heard his place on this year's roster, he declined the offer, instead giving it up so that bold Latino poet Alejandro Jimenez could take the stage at nationals for the first time. (Slam Nuba is currently the 2011 national team champion.)
This year's team: Jovan Mays, Kenya Mahogany Pollard, Jozer Guerrero, Alejandro Jimenez, Suzi Q. Smith.
The Mercury Cafe team: A handful of the same faces returned to the Mercury Cafe grand slam this weekend, both in the audience and on the stage. (This year's Women of the World champion -- and Denver native -- Dominique Ashaheed, for example, made it to all three slams, as did Minor Disturbance coach Ken Arkind.) The night offered a change of pace, with more focus on the funny than Slam Nuba's tryouts: Poets shared messed-up love stories, minor disasters and their unwillingness to have sex with Captain Kirk (ever). List poems were popular, and surprises were frequent: In Ian Dougherty's first poem of three, he imitated Flavor Flav's "Yeah, boy" cry before discussing a "land of rape and honey."
The evening's greatest surprise, though, came at the end: Ian Dougherty and Rebecca Preston, both performers at Slam Nuba's grand slam the week before, found heavier favor with these judges, who ranked the couple among the highest of the night. In total, both poets raised more than ten ranks to topple the competition and make it to nationals. When the results were announced, the stage developed into one giant hug, with those two at the center.
This year's team: Rebecca Preston, Ian Dougherty, Trevor Liam-Byrne Smith, Jovan Mays, Peter Aquinor. (Note: Mays must decide which of the two teams he will represent, at which point an alternate will be moved up to replace him.)
Minor Disturbance: This year's greatest wow factor came from its youngest poets. The nine who took the stage at Su Teatro last night lived up to their motto, "No bedtime!" with a three-hour show that featured performances from Ashaheed, Ayinde Russell and Slam Nuba coach Jen Rinaldi between bouts of sharp and aggressive self-reflection from the teens themselves.
Behind the performers, coach Ken Arkind propped up the ceremonial check that came with the group's title as one of this year's Westword MasterMind winners. For the younger group, the competitive year focuses on Brave New Voices, the world's largest youth poetry festival, which is filmed for an annual HBO series. Last night marked the group's seventh grand slam, and previous winners have gone on to earn spots in the city's adult teams as they age out of youth competition. (The night's host, Jozer Guerrero, made the 2012 Slam Nuba lineup, for example.) Topics were tough: The young poets, one of whom traveled from Boston to make it, tackled domestic violence, the deaths of loved ones, Polynesian heritage, the art of writing and the trials of sex throughout the night's three rounds.
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This year's team: Kevin Kantor, Amal Kassir, Ashlynn Damers, Leah Scott, Isabel Elliott, Stephen Garcia.