One for the Home Team
It was the ultimate steel-cage death match -- but with performance poetry.
"It's all these eccentric artists that get together, and a lot of times there are some pretty big egos that get involved," explains Ebony "Isis" Booth, one of the five members of the Denver Slam Team who clashed with slam powerhouses from Chicago and New York at the 2006 National Poetry Slam Championship in Austin, Texas, two weeks ago. The August 9-12 event drew over 74 teams and 500 poets from across North America -- and the Denver crew won it all, bringing the spoken-verse championship title to the Mile High City for the first time.
"It's fucking awesome," says team coach Ted Vaca. "I myself feel vindicated." A member of the 1995 national champs from Asheville, North Carolina, Vaca helped launch the Sunday-night slams at the Mercury Cafe in 1999 and coached the Denver team four times at nationals, never making it past the semi-finals. Then, with some fresh faces and Vaca as coach, Denver came in sixth at the 2003 championships in Chicago ("Poem on the Range," August 21, 2003). The next year, the Denver team leapt into the number-two spot at the 2004 contest in St. Louis. But in 2005 in New Mexico -- without Vaca as coach -- the crew dropped back to 52nd out of 75 groups competing.
For this year's word rodeo, Vaca returned to the coach's spot and found a group that adhered like a tight phrase -- as well as a strong, supportive scene.
"So it wasn't just poets from the Mercury Cafe going to a national poetry competition," says Booth, who also hosts Cafe Nuba, a regular Afro-centric poetry gathering in Five Points. "It was all Denver poets who got together and spent the whole summer honing our craft and boiling a team and working together."
This coherence allowed the Denver crew to stick together through numerous preliminary battles while teams from other cities were self-destructing mid-act. "When we got there, we saw that some other teams just started breaking down. It was like spring break, and they were just losing it, kicking people off their team," recalls Booth. "So there was just something present in our team that I just didn't see in other teams. And that's what made us successful." That, and perhaps their motto: "Let's Eat Some Fuckin' Lunches."
Each round of the contest consisted of poets reciting a composition that could span all styles of rhythm, rhyming, intonation and wordplay in less than three minutes. Booth describes the scene as "like band camp mixed with a Star Wars convention -- and then, poets!" In team huddles before each bout, members of the Denver crew would shout the "Thundercats' call" from the 1980s cartoon show. "And the other teams would just look at us like we were absolutely retarded," she adds. "But it was our thing, and it worked."
For Vaca, the finest moment of the competition came when the Denver team was pitted against New York's Nuyoricans, Salt Lake City's team and Team Albuquerque, the defending champion. The match was held in a small coffeehouse in downtown Austin, and when it came time for Denver to take the stage, team members remained in their seats in the third row. But that was part of the piece. Titled "Uhuru," the poem began with Booth singing and Panama Soweto chiming in with a vocal chant. Then Katie Wirsing and Jen Rinaldi added percussion by beating their chairs, and Ken Arkind entered the fray with a rebellious call to action.
Vaca remembers it: "Man, you have to see this piece, because it's so hard for me to fill it in. The energy in the room was overwhelming." The coach stood at the side of the room, rocking back and forth. Soon he started to weep. "They had transcended," he remembers. "They were no longer just poets or performers -- they were from another world, angels of a higher understanding delivering the word of the cosmos. Right in the midst of the audience."
The Denver Slam Team is now planning several shows locally to celebrate its win and hopes to parlay the championship title into a national poetry tour.
Performances by the Denver Slam Team are also available for download at www.podslam.org, a cooperative venture between Denver's Just Media Fund and Cafe Nuba that launched earlier this year. The interactive online outlet for "fresh, cutting-edge performance poetry" filmed eighty poets and 180 performances at the nationals in Austin and plans to post some of those videos in early September. Podslam.org co-creator Henry Ansbacher, who has worldwide ambitions for the website, couldn't help but swell with pride over the achievement of his home town's poets.
"I saw a lot of performances that weekend and was just blown away by the caliber of the performers there," Ansbacher says, adding that the Denver Team stood out. "I think they just had very thoughtful content and they really worked together on stage, which was very effective."
"As for the poetry scene, it shows that Denver is a force to be respected," Vaca says. "That we have a professional crew, that we write well, that the East and West coasts have nothing more than we do. We won with good, strong poetry, not just yelling or ranting, but with the gift of true lyricism." -- Jared Jacang Maher
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