When Slam Nuba was started four years ago by a small group of Denver poets fresh off a win at the Poetry Slam nationals with the team from the Mercury Cafe, there was some concern that the upstart group would cause some friction. The Merc was the established anchor of the scene, the core. Would the split create a rivalry?
Indeed, says Ayinde Russell, Slam Nuba's current Slam Master, "in this particular arena, we sometimes find ourselves in a setting where we're competing."
Then again, competition is the foundation of the whole thing. "Quite frankly," Russell acknowledges, "competition is not the first thing you associate with poetry. Poetry is a vehicle for expression and art, and it's honestly a little disconcerting when you find yourself in an environment where there is going to be a winner and there's going to be a loser."
Still, both winning and losing have their benefits.
For one thing, just in the way it's set up, slam poetry allows teams to develop on a grassroots level, open to new blood. Here's how it works: Twice a month, an organization like Nuba hosts a slam, where anyone can sign up and, in a process of elimination that's judged by random members of the audience, win that night. Then, in the spring, there's a slam-off, in which the winners of those slams compete in the same way. The top five scorers become members of the team that heads to the nationals, where they compete with about eighty other teams created in the same way.
And Slam Nuba has done very well in those competitions: Each year since its inception, it's placed in the top ten at nationals, though it has yet to win outright. That, says Russell, is another benefit to competition: "As a poet, there are just not a lot of venues that give you access to national stages, national exposure. Some of us are even making a living doing this, and not just a crashing-on-couches living. People can actually take care of themselves, provide for a family, even. And that's exciting."
The third benefit of competition? It pushes you to be better at what you do. "This competition drives people to dig incredibly deep, to become more skilled, and to try things that they otherwise wouldn't try," Russell says. "There's a real culture of excellence it promotes."
And ultimately, that's why there's more than enough room for two excellent, nationally competitive slam teams in this town. And why, though they have somewhat different goals — "We wanted to reach a more diverse demographic," Russell says — the two teams have co-existed in harmony and with more than a little crossover. "I'm a perfect example of that," Russell notes. "I was qualified in 2009 to slam with both teams, and I went with the Merc, but there was another guy who had traditionally been with the Merc's team that slammed with Nuba that summer. There's a real sense of family that crosses over those boundaries.
"Nuba was originally created as just another outlet for creative voices," he continues. "There's a limited number of spaces to be competitive on a national level, so it was just, like, let's create more opportunities to let people know what this is like."
And if the competition heats up — if, say, the two teams face off at national semi-finals (both teams place highly), so much the better for the city they both represent. "Poetry in Denver is really rich," says Russell, "and when we go to nationals, these teams always show that we're among the best in the country."