NPS2008: Charlotte takes top prize at poetry slam finals
Post by Emily Mills on 8/12/2008 11:01am
Overture Hall filled with appreciative poets and spectators last Saturday night, everyone eager to see the final contestants in this yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s National Poetry Slam competition. From 70 teams, just 4 had risen to the top for their final chance on stage: Boston Cantab, louderARTS from New York City, Austin Poetry Slam, and last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s champions, SlamCharlotte.
Excitement and anticipation was in the air, along with the jazzy, tribal sounds of a house band that worked to warm up the audience before the official program began. Then the lights dimmed, a cheer went up, and series of introductory poems accompanied by modern dance kicked off the event. A short film about the UWÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first-of-its-kind First Wave program was shown, highlighting the students whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve come to Madison to study their various subjects, all while spending time learning about and living hip-hop and spoken word culture.
MadisonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s own Josh Healey, who competed for the cityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s team, came to the stage to deliver another introductory poem (not as part of the competition), and chose the subject of Australian athlete Peter Norman, the white man in the famous photo standing next to two black Olympic athletes giving the black pride salute on the awards podium. It was a touching piece: Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a short list of white folks who gave more to support the cause than just words and a check in the mail.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Following this, the Spirit of the Slam award was presented to Dr. Sheila Siobhan, an organizer with the Texas Youth Word Collective and the mother of recently passed Austin poet Shannon Leigh Lewis. The stage was then cleared of everything save a lone microphone with a single light beaming down onto it, and a group poetry tribute was read over the speakers.
And then, after another poem by Still Waters Collective artistic director Dasha Kelly, the nightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s emcee took to the stage to get things started. Sonja Renee, wearing a brightly colored floral print dress and smiling brightly at the assembled crowd, urged the volunteer judges to score consistently and honestly: Ã¢â‚¬Å“If a zero is the worst poem youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve ever heard, then 10 creates multiple orgasmic waves throughout all of Madison and Bush drops dead.Ã¢â‚¬Â The audience thundered with cheers and laughter, ready to hear and see the nightsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ offerings.
A sacrificial poet was needed, though, before the real competition could begin. Andrea Gibson, the 2008 Women of the World poet champion, took the dubious honor and gave an intense and well-delivered poem: Ã¢â‚¬Å“We were all born on days when too many people died in terrible ways.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The stage thus set, the first team sent up their inaugural poet for the evening: a contestant from Boston performed a poem from the point of view of the devil appearing to a battered woman in her dreams. With a deep, baritone voice, and dripping with gravitas, he delivered the final punctuating line: Ã¢â‚¬Å“You know, I hear you still say youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re the only person at the shelter who owes your life to the devil.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Next, New York sent up Ovius Maximus, who recited a piece about the beauty of women, and how men need to step up and respect them more: Ã¢â‚¬Å“The way I see it, this will always be a manÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s world, but only under a womanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s supervision.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Austin sent Andy up then to perform a poem about growing up in Texas as the Ã¢â‚¬Å“sensitive poetÃ¢â‚¬Â amongst his redneck cousins, and growing to love his home despite (or because of) its quirks: Ã¢â‚¬Å“No, Texas may not be GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s country, but she sure as shit buys her barbeque here!Ã¢â‚¬Â
Finishing off the first of four rounds, Charlotte brought a group piece that addressed suicide, and the bravery required to stand up and live: Ã¢â‚¬Å“You question past decisions more than you question your religion.Ã¢â‚¬Â Group numbers are often audience favorites, and this one seems to be no exception. The audience roars its approval as the emcee waltzes back on stage to announce the start of round two.
The night rolled on with raucous audience feedback and encouragement for the poets, the judges all speedily handing down their scoresÃ¢â‚¬â€nothing lower than the mid-eights all night, and only a precious few tens. By far the highest scoring poem of the night was delivered by Charlotte: one woman standing on stage, in front of the microphone, but when she opened her mouth to speak, it was the voice of a man that came out. Another team member, just off stage, recited the piece as she lip-synched perfectly. It was from the perspective of a young man who has just gotten away with raping an ex (or current) girlfriend. The piece was deeply intense, morbidly fascinating, and incredibly well-written and performed. There can hardly be a dry eye in the entire theatre as the piece reached its crescendo, the womanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s voice now mixing with the manÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s: Ã¢â‚¬Å“You were begging me to stop but maybe you shouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have been so drop dead gorgeous.Ã¢â‚¬Â The poem is greeted by a thundering, standing ovation and almost all tens from the judges.
Other pieces address domestic abuse, conflicted love for a conflicted nation, memories of grandfathers, what itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s like to live in your car, young American soldiers going off to Iraq, and many personal stories. Jeanann Verlee from New YorkÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s team recited a poem, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Charles ChatmanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s letter to his accuser,Ã¢â‚¬Â from the point of view of a man whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d recently been released from prison, found innocent of rape by DNA evidence after decades in prison, addressing his accuser: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Where ethics and justice failed me, I was saved by scienceÃ¢â‚¬Â¦won my freedom in the lottery of caged men.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Another sort of epistolary poem was delivered by Marty McConnell, also from New York, as St. Catherine of Sienna addressing Mary Kate Olson. At turns both funny and moving, she touched on the concept of food and the body, and the different ways in which each had used them: Ã¢â‚¬Å“The devilÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the one who wants you small.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Beauty and body image sprung up again in April from BostonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s poem: Ã¢â‚¬Å“This is the story of the ugly duckling that cared more about flying than becoming a swan.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The four rounds done, the official scorekeeper tallied all of the points and delivered the final verdict to the emcee, who now stood on stage carrying her small dog (Ã¢â‚¬Å“Meet Anastasia Duchess!Ã¢â‚¬Â). To the vocally anxious cries of the audience, she called out the places: in fourth, Boston with 110.2 points and in third, Austin with 110.5 (a close one!). New York took second place with 113.2, which left the previous yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s champs to continue their reignÃ¢â‚¬â€Charlotte in first with 115.7 points.
The crowd roared and all of the poets gathered on stage to receive their trophies and to hug, dance, and generally celebrate the completion of another successful bout. The National Poetry Slam will return to Madison next summer, when more established and up-and-coming poets will meet in various venues around the city to duke it out for artistic bragging rights and to reestablish bonds and friendships with fellow poets from around the country.
Emily Mills is Editor-At-Large for Dane101, as well as Editor of Our Lives Magazine. She is also a freelance writer, photographer, actor, and musician (drummer and singer in local band Little Red Wolf). Originally from several states up and down the Midwest Emily has called Madison home since 2000. Contact her at