Poem on the Range
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.
"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.
"I called them an hour ago and told them I was running fifteen minutes late," he says. "I'm not going to call them back. They're cool. They know I'll show up eventually. They always cover me when we're rehearsing."
Lipman's employers, friends and family are used to it. The slam team comes first, and everyone else just has to deal.
No one expected slam poetry to last this long.
Rejected by academics and dismissed by "serious" writers as performance art or, worse, shtick, slam poetry is a literary stepchild, a mutation. Commonly regarded as pretentious, egocentric and sometimes just plain irritating, it's linked with unpleasant images of red-faced, beret-wearing bards emoting into microphones and presenting the Truth with a capital T.
"I hear it all the time," Gibson says. "People don't get it, or they'll say, 'That's not poetry.' They think it's hip-hop without music, or standup comedy. Really, it's a combination of sports and art. But in order to get points, you have to do more than just score a basket. You have to make someone cry, or laugh; you have to touch them somehow. I don't know how you'd know how to do that if you weren't a 'real' artist."
Seeded in Chicago clubs in the late '80s, slam spread east to New York and Boston, west to the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest, and then, from those lively pockets, in every direction. Denver's been there almost from the beginning. The Sunday-night slams at the Mercury, which Dougherty and Vaca launched in 1999, are among the restaurant's most popular events. While not competitive, Cafe Nuba, the monthly spoken-word happening at Gemini Tea House in Five Points, draws crowds that wrap around the building. It used to be difficult to win a slam; now it's tough to simply get into one.
"For each of the four slots on the Mercury team, there are easily five or six really excellent poets who could have filled the spot," says Vaca. "There's a high level of talent and excitement in Denver right now, and it's all these really young people - like 20, 21 -- who are keeping it going. Some of the old crowd has dropped out, but these kids are just so jazzed to be discovering reading and performing. They connect with this stuff in a way they never thought they would when they were in high school."
Four teenage girls are hanging out the third-floor window of an old brownstone building, shouting teasing taunts to two young men who stand side by side on the sidewalk below. A minute ago, Dougherty and Arkind were squared off in Wirsing's living room, standing nose to nose and spitting all over each other lines from a poem titled "Open Letter," a political tract about racism and war, with all the rage and indignation of a battle rap. Vaca had the two face each other as they recited it and, at moments, they looked as if they were about to come to blows.
Everyone agrees that "Open Letter" is one of the team's stronger pieces, and Vaca expects it to pull high scores in competition. Race, social issues and war are big topics in the slam community, and collaborative pieces tend to play well with judges -- even if they do come from a couple of white boys. Wiry, with deliberate dreadlocks and a nasal, staccato delivery, 21-year-old Arkind is the perfect counterpart to the streetwise and serious Dougherty, 28, a Pittsburgh-bred B-boy in a baseball cap who can move from crisp and exacting to bellowing and menacing in the space of one verse.
After an intense session, the piece was sounding gritty and confrontational -- just as it should. And when everyone went out on Wirsing's front stoop for a smoke, Vaca saw an opportunity for another extemporaneous performance.
In a minute, despite their protests, Arkind and Dougherty are performing "Open Letter" to people walking by, to passing cars, to residents in nearby apartments. On the corner of 14th Avenue and Pennsylvania Street, a notorious hot zone for crack buyers and sellers, the two run through a laundry list-style riff of every imaginable racial epithet: "Nigger, spick, kike, dike, beaner, faggot and cracker," they scream at the top of their lungs. Such confrontational stuff is rampant in competitive slamming, but in the middle of an urban neighborhood, it sounds downright dangerous.
"Ted is definitely trying to get us killed," Arkind says.
"Yeah, Ted, why don't you come up here and read this one with us, okay?" Dougherty says.
Nobody gets killed, though. Instead, the girls in the window holler teasing insults while passersby look both bewildered and annoyed. Some of Wirsing's neighbors, gathered on the stoop drinking beer, clap politely but seem almost embarrassed.
Slam poets are used to such reactions.
"I'm pretty sure all of my neighbors think I'm crazy," says Wirsing, who, at eighteen, is the youngest member of the Merc team. "This place is like a frat house. They're always having Jell-O fights and parties, and I just have my weird friends over. It's always easy to find me in the building. I'm the one with a bunch of people screaming in my apartment."
And outside her apartment. When Vaca calls Gibson out to run through "Heaven," a solo piece she wrote about spirituality, the girls in the window go still. Even the cars seem quieter as Pennsylvania Street becomes Gibson's stage.
Poetry Slam Incorporated, the Chicago-based governing body of the National Poetry Slam, has seen its membership rise nearly 40 percent in the past three years, with more than a hundred officially sanctioned teams around the world. Ninety of those teams are vying for a chance to compete at the Nationals. The audiences have grown, too: About 300 people attended the first championship bout in San Francisco in 1990; this year, more than 1,500 poetry-philes are expected to show up for the final round at Navy Pier.
To meet increased demand, PSI expanded the number of teams slated to compete in the 2003 Nationals from 56 to 63. In late July, Denver is sitting at number 64 -- first on the wait list and banking on the chance that another team will drop out.
"Yeah, we're pretty much screwed," says Dougherty, who's attended finals every year since 2000. "There's no way that we can't go, just knowing that we probably -- probably -- will be able to get in. But we don't know for sure, and there's no way we will until we actually get there. We just have to pretend that we know we'll get in; otherwise, we'd never push ourselves as hard as we do."
"The Denver team is in the worst possible position," says Steve Marsh, a member of the PSI board of directors. "When they found out they were wait-listed, Ted called me in a panic, like, 'What can we do? What can we do?' And unfortunately, I had to tell him that his only option was to roll the dice. I told them that if it were me, I'd go. I guess it depends on how you think your luck is going to play out."
The odds of a team dropping out are decent, if not dependable. All it will take is for one group to get towed in Duluth or run out of gas in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
"I've been doing little rituals," says the pink-haired Lipman, who, in conversation, often breaks into poems and scenes from his favorite films; his business card identifies him as Performance Poet, Writer, Dork. "I know there's probably not a chance in hell that I personally will get to compete. As the alternate, you know it would take one of your teammates coming down with some amazing incurable disease in order for a slot to open up, and you don't want that. But I wouldn't mind if something happened to happen to another team."
Although it is designed to showcase an art form filled with large personalities, big themes and wild personal expression, the National Poetry Slam is ultimately shaped by mundane paperwork. Every year, PSI fields complaints from teams and individuals who feel the registration process should be changed in this way or that, and every year, minor adjustments are made. This year, PSI relied more heavily on the Internet, reminding potential competitors of deadlines by e-mail rather than letters, as it has in years past.
Vaca, whose job it is to keep up with such things, says he never got the e-mail. And so the team missed the deadline to enter; that's why it's on the waiting list. Some in the local poetry-slam scene blame Vaca; others fault PSI. Gibson isn't exactly sure what happened. As a performer and team captain, she is concerned about content, not bureaucracy.
"I can't think about it," she says. "But when I do, I just tell myself, 'Well, even if we don't get to perform any of these poems for any people other than ourselves, they'll just become like gifts to the gods. But we still will have gone through the process of creating them -- sort of like we're all writing a poem together just by having this experience. It'll make us better no matter what."
Regulars at the Merc's Sunday-night slams have gotten to know a few things about Andrea Gibson, and not just what she reveals in her poems.
At 28, with a sandy-blond croptop, she's political, opinionated and partial to the Big Issues. If slamming were professional boxing, she'd be the lightweight you don't think much of until she's knocked you flat on your ass. At the team tryouts, while others read pieces about adolescence or failed romances, Gibson killed the crowd with "El Mozote," a three-minute stream-of-consciousness tale about a village full of women and children who perished during the American-sanctioned invasion of El Salvador. She enjoys the contradictions of her character in her work. When she noticed that a lot of her fellow lesbian poets were writing "the typical lesbian poem," she wrote a loving homage to the wonders of men. She appears fearless on stage but suffers from stage fright. Audience members know to leave her alone right before she performs. That's when she can be found pacing the Mercury's floor, making mad loops and whispering to herself.
"I went to college and majored in English, but I always hated reading anything out loud. I was always so nervous, it was horrible," she says. "The first time I ever went to a slam in Boulder, I was holding the piece in my hands, and the paper was shaking. And the next time, I came to the Merc and read, and, again, the paper was shaking. But I noticed these other people who were slamming, and their paper wasn't shaking, because they didn't have anything in their hands. It was kind of like a little light went off right then."
Gibson's entrance on the Mercury scene was not a smash. On a scale of one to ten -- the scoring system used in all PSI-sanctioned slams -- she scored solid fives and was eliminated in the first round. But she worked, honed her craft and learned from other poets. The slam scene soon absorbed Gibson's mind and gave her a social life.
"When I first was living in Boulder, I would spend an entire weekend alone, not talking to anyone from the time I left work on Friday until Monday, when I went back to work," she says. "But I made all of these friends that I loved. It gave me some place to be. Now it feels really like a family vibe with the team. We don't always agree -- we fight about a lot of things, actually -- but we usually find a way to work it out."
Gibson has experience with team dynamics. While attending Saint Joseph's College of Maine on an academic scholarship, she played on the basketball team before moving to New Orleans and then heading to Boulder, where she works as a Montessori instructor at a preschool and is a member of the pro-femme performance troupe Vox Feminista. Slammers are fond of downplaying the importance of scoring -- "The points are not the point" is an oft-repeated mantra -- but Gibson takes her marks personally. She's offended when she scores poorly in competition, which doesn't happen very often. She has mastered the art of "hitting it," what slammers call a righteous reading, and judges love her.
So does Vaca.
"Andrea is really, really amazing," he says. "She came into this scene and just blew a lot of people away. To be really good, you've got to be a good performer; you've got to be a good writer as well as a performer. Andrea is both. When she's on, she's just got it."
Vaca and Gibson don't always agree on what makes a piece work, and she often isn't keen on hearing what he has to say about her performance. As the team coach, Vaca is fond of using lit terms like "tonality," "crescendo" and "ambience" when critiquing her readings, while she tends to rely more on instinct. While he outlines observations he's made in his notepad, she's sometimes playfully defiant, singing rap songs or even Christian hymns.
"It's always been a very democratic system on the team, where we all have a say in how things go and we give input on what everyone is doing," she says. "There have been times when I know I'm off, and I'll say, 'Don't listen to me -- I'm completely full of bullshit.' But usually I think when I'm performing, I don't really need that much feedback. I'm already going over everything so much in my head that I think I can do a pretty good job of critiquing myself.
"Ted and I don't always agree," she continues. "Like, he'll tell Ken not to fidget or play with his shirt while he's reading, and I think that's part of his character, what makes him such a completely unique poet, like no one else I've ever seen. Or he'll try to mellow out some of Katie's mannerisms. The way I think of it, she's only eighteen years old. In ten years she's going to be winning Nationals, and she's just got to be herself."
Still, Gibson knows a coach can play a vital role come game time. Last year, at the Nationals in Minneapolis, the Merc team didn't make it past the preliminary round, and everyone's determined that won't happen again. In a competitive scenario where so much depends on split-second decisions -- which poet will read which poem at which point in a bout, for example -- coaches are the ones who make the tough calls, even if it means hurting someone's feelings.
"It can get kind of difficult, because everyone wants a chance to read their poem," Gibson says. "But you might find yourself in a position where the best thing for the team is for someone to give up that chance so that the team can score higher -- either with a stronger piece by another person, or with a group piece or whatever. It's tough when it's the team itself trying to make those calls, because we're all so close. You want everyone to have their shot. Ted's going to be thinking more about strategy, and you need that."
The team could face lethal competition in Chicago from New York, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit -- teams whose members are generally older, more seasoned and more diverse than the Denver players. Although Gibson and Dougherty are veterans of the event, Arkind and Wirsing have never participated in a national competition before. Still, Gibson is hoping for a strong showing -- if the team gets to compete at all, that is.
"It's frustrating when you don't win, mainly because it means your chances of reading more are over for that year," she says. "The cool thing about competing in slam is not so much winning; it's that if you get a high score, you get to read another poem. And if you score high again, you get to read another one. And on and on. You get the chance to make that connection. It's access to an audience, which is really all any poet wants."
Paul Lipman is dead asleep when his phone rings at 9 a.m. on Monday, August 4. He'd been up late, as usual. The night before, the team had showcased its competition material for the Merc crowd, and afterward, Lipman and most of the members hung out soaking up both encouragement and alcohol. Now he's soaking up some REM time. He knows they won't get a lot of rest in Chicago; there'll be too many friends to see, too much poetry to hear, too much to think about.
And too much at stake: The call is from PSI's Steve Marsh, and he has good news. The Memphis team failed to answer allegations that its members were selected by the coach -- rather than determined by judges in an audition-style slam, as required -- and has been disqualified. So a slot has opened up, and Denver is in.
Twelve hours later, Lipman, Gibson, Dougherty, Wirsing and Arkind speed east across the plains. They argue over music (Dougherty and Arkind insist on listening to Fugazi and Eminem), sleep, try to pretend that five people crammed into a mid-sized economy car is not an unpleasant proposition. In Nebraska, Dougherty is terrorized by bats hanging beneath a freeway overpass, something he'll be teased about for the duration of the drive. Across Iowa, they make up songs and occasionally practice poems. Vaca isn't there to critique them.
Just over a week before the team was due to leave Denver, Vaca announced that he wasn't going to make it to Nationals. While the Merc team functions as a family in some ways, Vaca ultimately had to put his real family first. His ten-year-old daughter, who lives in California, had come to town unexpectedly, and Vaca was going to spend the week with her.
"I absolutely support the decision that Ted made. That's his daughter. If he chose coming with us over being with her, I'd think something was seriously wrong with him," Dougherty says. "I'm just bummed for him that he doesn't get to come to Nationals. Ted's been around the slam community for years. This is his chance to just, once a year, see all of his friends and connect with all the people he's known forever. He's going to miss out on the whole thing after going through all this work."
The team will be on its own in Chicago. Lipman will step into the coaching role and handle all administrative tasks, while Gibson will increase her responsibilities as captain. They'll continue approaching decisions the same way they have since April: democratically, with each member getting a say in what happens in competition.
"We're still going to talk to him," Wirsing says of their absent coach. "Paulie will be talking strategy with him every day. But we're here and he's not, so we'll be figuring a lot of things out for ourselves."
"From a social standpoint, you're sad that Ted's not here, because he's your friend and you want to have fun with him," Gibson says. "But I think as far as the team goes, it's not going to make that much of a difference. At first I was worried because he wouldn't be there to weigh in if we get in a situation where we have to decide who gets to read and who doesn't. But we've got our strategies pretty much in place, so now it's just a matter of doing them."
The eighth-floor hallway of the Travelodge Hotel in downtown Chicago is filled with smoke, but there's no fire, no emergency. Sucking on a Marlboro Light, Arkind is pacing up and down, up and down, occasionally emitting guttural grunts and waving his arms around. He looks moderately psychotic, and in a way, he is. In less than an hour, he and his team will leave for the very first bout of the National Poetry Slam.
Arkind isn't sure which piece he'll read, so he's working on two: "Suburbia," an anti-consumerist rant disguised as a radio commercial, and "One Up," a humorous but philosophical piece that equates love and life with video games. Both have played well with Merc crowds, but the consensus is that "Suburbia" is stronger. If the team does well in the first round, they'll go with "One Up," saving "Suburbia" for a later point in the tournament. (Pieces can be read only once during the early phases of competition, which means that each team needs to arrive with twelve strong poems if it hopes to advance to the finals.)
"I've never seen a poet like Ken before," Gibson says. "It's almost like he's channeling characters. He can pull out these really funny voices; sometimes he'll sound like an old Jewish grandfather. But what he's saying is usually pretty hard if you listen."
There are words that Arkind won't put in a piece unless he really, really has to. Words like Soul. Fire. Reality. Dreams. Stars. Time. When it can't be avoided, he inserts such words carefully, deliberately -- maybe even ironically -- and never in combination. He'll never have a fire in his soul, for example, or a dream about stars. Those are the hallmarks of amateurs, saps -- the language of lazy poets.
Technically, Arkind is an amateur. Last year he attended Nationals as a student, not a participant, taking notes on everything he saw. But he isn't lazy, and he sure as hell isn't a sap. On "Ex-Girlfriend," a caustic breakup piece, his boyish, bookish charm recedes, and the edginess of a Philadelphia upbringing bounces right to the surface: "You/You are the cause of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome/Every time you laugh, a newborn baby hears it and dies/I'm serious/You're that/fucking/evil."
On the Friday before the team left for Chicago, Cafe Nuba organizers invited Arkind, Dougherty and Lipman to read before the mostly black crowd. Although many Nuba supporters regard the Merc poets as too white and too cliquish, Arkind's irreverent, ballsy, East Coast style was a hit.
"I always like the Nuba crowd because they're more responsive," he says. "They don't sit there and wait for you to finish the poem. They'll start shouting or clapping in the middle, so you know that you've got them or they're into what you're saying. I think I almost prefer a tougher crowd, which is probably why I'm so excited about Nationals."
Arkind was a shoo-in at the April tryouts, outscoring other regulars, including Lipman, who was a member of the 2002 team and its alternate the year before. But Chicago isn't Denver, and in the hotel hallway, he's nervous as hell. They all are.
In Room 808, where Arkind, Dougherty and Lipman are shacking up, the air is thick not with smoke, but with anxiety. The plan tonight is for Dougherty and Arkind to read first together, then Arkind solo, then Wirsing solo. Gibson will be the anchor, like in a relay race, and is expected to score high in the last position. Lipman's running the team through the group pieces, one after another, then each of the solo poems. Gibson keeps an eye on the clock; they're supposed to be at the Subterranean Club at 6 p.m. Wirsing flows gracefully through "India," a poem about a five-year-old who wants to be "language" when she grows up. Dougherty nails "Mitochondrial DNA," an angry coda about his youth in Pittsburgh and the racial stereotypes he encounters from both blacks and white males. Gibson gets up and starts in on "Heaven," but stops after about 45 seconds.
"I don't know what's going on. I have to stop," she says, collapsing on the bed. "I felt like I was going to pass out just then."
Along with memorization, articulation and technical ability, breath control is a vital skill in performance poetry, especially the way Gibson does it. Her phrases run together without pause and she fills every second of her three-minute allotments with words. But since she landed in Chicago's humidity the day before, she hasn't been able to get enough air in her lungs. She puts one arm over her eyes and the other on her chest, deliberately forcing it to rise and fall.
"Well, this is great," she says. "Jesus Christ. I can't breathe."
Lipman leads the team members through rush-hour traffic and onto the El's Blue Line, which will deposit them in the boho district of Wicker Park, where most of the National Poetry Slam bouts are taking place. Looking dazed and anxious, Gibson glances around at the train's other passengers. Wirsing plays with the laminated pass that dangles from her long neck. Issued by PSI to all registered performers, it identifies her as a POET.
The ride is too quiet for Dougherty. His jaw is clenched, his fist is tightly clasped around a pole, and adrenaline is surging through his body like plasma. He nods his head and starts making squelching, spitting sounds with his mouth and teeth, busting a beat that sounds like it could be in the background of a commercial rap tune. Arkind joins in, and the two trade breaks and beats as the train ambles on through the underbelly of an industrial neighborhood. Lipman taps his seat in time. It's a three-man percussion ensemble in the middle of the El.
Some travelers take momentary notice, scan the laminates, then return to their newspapers and Palm Pilots. Most simply ignore them. Gibson does too, for a while, then finally smiles. She nods her head to the rhythm, which continues until the train halts at Damen Street. By then she's breathing again, and she's ready.
Upstairs at the Subterranean, Lipman is brooding over his paperwork and cursing his luck. Denver's drawn the short straw, which means it will have to go first in the first round. The five judges, who are selected from the audience at random, typically score low in the early phases of a bout, and it's not unusual for early-round poets to receive a 7.5 for a piece that would draw a 9.0 in the fourth.
But they did okay on the team match-up. They'll go up against Boston and Cleveland, two teams that are older and more seasoned, but not considered deadly. Denver is the only all-white team, which Gibson thinks may be a disadvantage: Alongside rape and Republicans, race is one of the most common themes at Nationals. Two Afrocentric crews from New York -- Urbana and Nuyorican -- are already drawing considerable buzz as possible contenders for the title.
As a non-competitive poet warms up the crowd, Gibson gathers the rest of the team in a group hug at the back of the room. They're sticking with the plan they went over in the hotel, which Vaca approved by phone from Denver. If they pull low scores in the first two rounds, they'll put "Puff" in place of Wirsing's "India."
Finally, after what feels like hours, Dougherty and Arkind are called up, and the competition begins.
"This is an open letter to the United States government," they say in perfect tandem, ripping into the piece as if it were a piece of meat. They sail through the first portion, but Dougherty gets caught on a word, then another. He makes a face that punctuates what the audience already knows: He screwed up, blew two lines. They're not fatal errors, but they're enough to affect the scoring, especially in the first round.
When the first judge comes back with a 7.4, Dougherty drops to his knees and puts his head on the bar stool. At the Merc slams and other competitions, he rarely pulls anything below a 9.5. Once the lowest and highest scores are dropped, the piece gets a total of 25.7 -- certainly not what the team had hoped to reap with a piece as strong as "Open Letter," but not terrible, either. Especially as it becomes clear that, with a 24.6 awarded to Boston and a 23.8 to Cleveland, Denver is going to win the first round.
At the last minute, Arkind goes into the second-round slot with "One Up," and the crowd rolls with his opening. "Life/Is like/Maaaaario Brothers...," he says, drawing out each syllable, laying the Eastern accent on thick. The audience laughs, claps and loves it, but the judges prefer a piece from Boston on this round. Still, Denver retains the lead at the start of round three.
Wirsing, the first female performer of the bout, begins "India" strong -- flailing her arms about to punctuate the meter of her high-pitched, untrained voice. Her voice is full of water, and she sounds like she might break into tears with each turn of phrase. She's earnest, youthful and totally different from any poet who's read so far, and the audience rewards her. When she walks off stage with a 27.5, Denver takes round three.
Gibson paces a small corner of the floor near the back of the house as a South African woman from Boston takes the stage. She's the anchor of her team, too, with a crisp, detached style that's both eloquent and biting. The woman scores high -- a 28.3 -- but Gibson is focused on remembering her words and forgetting her stage fright. Breathing deeply, she practices up to the moment she steps onto the stage and absolutely nails "Heaven."
Half the room stands up and cheers when Gibson finishes. She draws one 9.8, the highest single score of the bout, moving Denver far into the lead. In order to win, a solo female poet from Cleveland will have to land a 28.3; the judges give her a 27.2.
Out on the street, complete strangers are hugging Gibson.
"I loved your poem," says a young black woman in a newsboy cap. A Hispanic guy in glasses and a forty-something white woman, who'd been one of the judges at the Subterranean, soon come up and say the same thing.
"I'm kind of shy, so I'm always just generally uncomfortable talking to people I don't know," Gibson says. "But when someone comes up to you to say they liked your poem, that it touched them in some way and connected, that's just a really good feeling."
Victory also feels good. Outside a coffee shop around the corner from the Subterranean, Arkind and Wirsing are shaking hands with fellow poets, figuring out who's reading where. Lipman, who seems to know every poet from every slam team in the nation, is accepting invitations; apparently, the Holiday Inn on Ohio Street has been overrun with aspiring bards, with parties on almost every floor. Dougherty calls Vaca to let him know that Denver will be heading into the second night of preliminaries as a first-round winner.
Their competition over, the team members are almost weightless. They float from venue to venue, catching portions of bouts that will run until midnight. Poets from Chicago, New York, Albuquerque, Ann Arbor, Miami and everywhere else spit, dance, beatbox, ruminate and rant wildly. Poets who aren't on the stage read on the sidewalks, in cafes, by hot-dog stands. Wicker Park is under siege by some alien literary force.
"It's like the Olympics for nerds," says Kate Makkai, a member of the Mercury's 2002 team who's now with a group from Baton Rouge. "Slam's just like a big, national family, and once a year we have this reunion, and we all get together and just dork out."
"You can always tell a town is kind of taken aback when the Nationals are going on," Gibson says. "It's not just in the venues that you see poetry events happening. You'll get everything -- spontaneous readings out in the parking lot somewhere. It's like a complete sensory overload for a couple of days.
"Part of what makes it so cool for us is that you come into this environment, and you've just automatically got a connection to the other people. You know you've got some common ground, because you're all poets, and this is maybe the one place in the world where that isn't a weird thing to be."
Round two, and Denver's team members are feeling confident, even though the judges are a bit prickly on this second night of preliminary bouts.
During the evening's first competition, teams that scored high the night before pulled 7.5s, 8s -- which dragged down their overall ranking in the tournament. A PSI volunteer working the door observes that this group of judges, chosen from the crowd of drinkers who'd gathered at the Note's bar, is responding more to humor -- standup-style pieces rather than serious ones.
Still, the two groups they're up against, Columbus and Minneapolis, lost the night before, and Denver's got buzz. They'll open strong with "El Mozote," which drew solid 10s from the Mercury judges in April. And because he read "One Up" last night, Arkind is going with "Suburbia," a sure thing.
So it comes as a shock when Gibson loses the round to Minneapolis.
And when Arkind pulls a 7.2 for "Suburbia" in round two.
Although Gibson's performance was technically flawless -- the bartender says it gave him goosebumps, and a few women stood up and applauded when she finished -- she didn't ignite the crowd. Neither did Arkind, who made three perceptible errors. Lipman decides to enter the third round with "Shine," a piece that involves all four team members. But the crowd isn't really with them, and one judge comes back with a 7.6.
Denver isn't the only team drawing low numbers. Poet after poet has walked away with the lowest score of his or her life. After Minneapolis serves up an oddly choreographed goof called "Motions," which disses slam and poetry in general, the judges are brutal: One comes back with a 0.7, the lowest score of this year's Nationals.
At the beginning of the final round, Denver leads by two points. Everything will depend on Dougherty, who'll anchor the bout with "Leah," a wrenchingly personal piece about a young girl who's ignored by her father. When the time comes, he hits every word, line, beat like they were broadcast directly from his cerebral cortex. The room is rapt, and so are the judges.
Denver wins again.
On Friday, August 8, Arkind stands in line at a convenience store next to the Subterranean, where Denver will compete in the semi-finals later this evening. The place is teeming with poets in various states of pre-performance ritual. By the door, a bald guy reads into a microcassette recorder, then rewinds and plays the tape back, scanning for flaws. Arkind is here to buy cigarettes: Smoking is part of his anxiety-abatement routine.
In line behind him is a young black guy with short dreads and a face full of chewing gum. Arkind recognizes him as a leader of the New York Urbana team and introduces himself as a member of the Denver team.
"You guys are some kind of Cinderella story, huh?" the guy says. "I heard you didn't even know you were going to be in this thing, and now you're winning everything."
Not quite, but Denver is still in the game. Even after its low-scoring win at the Note the night before, the team is in eleventh place overall. That ranking secured a place in the semi-finals, when the field of 63 teams is narrowed to sixteen. They still have strong pieces they haven't used in competition yet: "Puff," Arkind's "Stray Dogs," Dougherty's "Mitochondrial DNA," Wirsing's "Stupid Bastard Man" and Gibson's "Change," a breathless call to artists and activists that works almost like a rally speech. They've also got a feeling of momentum. In the Subterranean's crammed upstairs room, a woman cuts through the crowd to tell Gibson the Denver team is the best thing she's seen at Nationals. "I shouldn't be saying this," the woman says conspiratorially. "My boyfriend's on another team. But his scene can get a little same ol', same ol'. You guys are so different. It's refreshing."
But Denver is slotted against three killer teams: New Orleans, New York/Nuyorican and New York/Urbana, which last year tied Detroit for the championship. Even up against fierce opponents -- including the Chicago Green Mill crew, coached by slam founder Marc Smith -- Urbana smoked its competition in prelims, and the prevailing theory is that it hasn't touched its best material yet. The Nuyorican team, which sprang from the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene, regularly produces poets who appear on Def Poetry Jam. And after coming close to a perfect score on the first night of prelims, New Orleans is sitting in third position.
But Dougherty's undaunted. After four years at Nationals, he thinks Denver has its best chance ever of pulling it out. Either way, it'll be his last attempt. Because he'll be in school next summer and is getting married the following August, he won't be trying out for the 2004 team.
"I'm completely thrilled about the way things are going," says Dougherty. "We're winning, and we're actually performing poetry. We're one of the only teams that actually writes poetry as opposed to standup or something like that. All we have to do is get up there. I don't care who we're up against. I don't think anyone can beat us."
If any of his teammates feels differently, they don't let on. Not even after the bout starts and "Puff" receives a standing ovation -- but is outscored by poems from New Orleans and Nuyorican. In round two, Arkind goes over time and is penalized by half a point, which knocks him down to a 26.1 total score for "Stray Dogs," not nearly high enough to take the round.
In third place at the start of round three, the team huddles and hugs at the bar, then sends Gibson up to the mike to read "Change." By the time she hits the middle section, she's nearly gasping but clearly riding a full-tilt hit:
We can march a thousand picket lines/In the streets/We can tear up the concrete/A thousand times with our teeth/And plant the soil with a thousand fertile seeds/But the revolution that's marching/Deep inside our own private souls/That's the rain that will make the flowers grow.../For every day you paint the war/Take a week and paint the beauty/The color, the shape of the landscape/You're marching towards/ Everybody knows what you're against/Show them what you're for/Then become the door that opens/That keeps the people hopin'/And don't just point the way/Become the path that leads/Them there with everything you do/Cause if you're gonna change the world/ You've gotta start with you."
The crowd goes crazy when Gibson finishes, standing, stomping feet, chanting for a ten. One judge obliges, and all of the other scores are in the 9s. Her total of 29.4 is the highest of the evening. Denver wins round three.
But it isn't enough to move into the lead. Second behind Nuyorican with one round to go, Denver needs to score solid tens to stay in the competition.
"Do we have any more group pieces?" Gibson asks, even though she knows the answer. They've got to go with Dougherty's "Mitochondrial DNA" or Wirsing's "The Stupid Bastard Man." The team agrees that Dougherty's piece is stronger, that he's the most experienced performer -- and after last night's reading, he feels like he's on fire. But they're not sure the piece will score better. Wirsing won the crowd on the first night, and she's scored solid tens with Merc crowds in the past; Dougherty can't remember if he ever has. Gibson points out that many of the bout's poems have revolved around race issues, as does "Mitochondrial DNA." Going with "Stupid Bastard Man" -- an angry indictment of a sexual predator -- might make the most sense strategically.
Isn't that the kind of thing Vaca would want them to consider?
Dougherty and Wirsing hug for a full minute when Lipman announces they're going with "Stupid Bastard Man." Wirsing gives the piece her all -- the teammates agree it's the best she's ever read it -- but it's just not a ten poem. Nuyorican takes the round, and the bout. Scores of people congratulate the Denver poets on their way out of the building, but everyone knows it's over.
The ride back to Denver went quickly. They weren't jangling with nervous anticipation, as they were every moment on the way to Chicago. They didn't argue over music. They just put on the radio and watched the landscape roll. Time passed, and so did Nebraska.
Back home, when everyone asks how they did, they're satisfied with their answer.
A team from Los Angeles won the National Poetry Slam with three group pieces and a strong solo poem. The Nuyorican team took third. Denver finished sixth overall.
"We were in very high spirits all the way back," says Lipman. "We were kind of giddy, actually, just talking about everything that we were going to do now. Everyone wants to do this and that. Ian, Ken and I are going to go on a tour in March; Katie and Andrea want to put out books; I'm recording a CD. We're all just kind of exuberant.
"Hell, we went out there and did our best, and no one expected it from us, and we surprised everybody," he continues. "We weren't even supposed to be there. People were coming up to me saying we got robbed in the semi bout because we would have brought a fresher voice to the finals. But, you know, hindsight. We're all just looking ahead. We've all got a sense of forward momentum."
Two days after returning, Gibson hops on a plane to her home state of Maine, where she'll celebrate her birthday with her family, coming back in time for the team's showcase at Cafe Netherworld on Saturday, August 23. She'll use the time away to reflect on her experience at Nationals -- what worked, how she did, how the team might have done this or that differently -- but also to try to take a break from the world of words.
"Whenever I get back from Nationals, I'm usually torn," she says. "Like I either never want to hear another piece of poetry again as long as I live, or I can't wait to get started on my next piece, to just write and write."
Somewhere around 35,000 feet, one side prevails. Gibson writes all the way to touchdown.
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