Seattle Poetry Slam Team at Nationals

Slackers at Seattle.net commissioned this article from me in the late summer, then never used it and never paid me either (slackers).  Posted here…this is my homage to the 2007 Seattle Poetry Slam Team that should have been published in August 2007. 

This month the Seattle Poetry Slam team (Ryler Dustin, Tara Hardy, Danny Sherrard and Buddy Wakefield)  traveled to Austin, Texas to represent our emerald city as the 2007 Seattle Poetry Slam Team against 74 other teams at the National Poetry Slam competition.  To know how they fared, you’ll have to keep reading (and don’t skip ahead…bad karma, you know).  What’s that you say? You don’t know what a Poetry Slam is?  Or maybe, you some vague idea about Poetry Slams, but didn’t know that Seattle had a team?  It’s true, Seattle has one of the most vibrant performance poetry scenes in the country and is home to some of the titans of this art form.  And the 2007 team…quite an amazing team actually, and their bid for National Poetry Slam stardom has been an amazing journey for the four members of the team, beginning for most of them last September when Seattle’s Slam season began and poets began accumulating points toward the Seattle Grand Slam in April where the 2007 team were the four highest scoring poets. 

Seattle has one of the hottest Poetry Slams – and some of the hottest slam poets – in the country; every Tuesday night at Tost in

Fremont, there is an open mike, a featured poet and then anywhere from 6 to 12 poets who throw down on stage with the sole purpose of winning.  And of course where there are winners…there are losers.  Poetry and the agony of defeat: who’da thunk it.Poetry Slam.  Those words seem incongruous together like kitten punching or needlepoint gangs.  Poetry: friendly-gentle-sunshiny. Slam: ouch. But if you combine equal parts stand-up comedy, dramatic monologue, and rhyme; fold in a gallon of passion, a dash of rhythm (hip-hop if you can), and cook it hot in front of a raucous audience, you’ve got yourself a Poetry Slam. This grassroots art form has been around since 1986, although similar performances have been around as long as humans have had words and the ability to stand upright. This year 75 teams from across

North America will compete for a tiny bit of money and a big bucket of bragging rights at the National Poetry Slam.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  What the heck is a Poetry Slam?  In short: a competitive poetry reading. Poets get three minutes in front of a microphone to say whatever they want however they want. They are allowed no props, no costumes, and the writing must be their own.  Certainly there are ‘freestyle’ poets who make up their poetry on the fly, but in a typical competition poets practice their piece again and again to ensure they stay within that 3 minute limit, particularly since points begin being deducted at 3 minutes, 10 seconds.  Nope, slam poetry isn’t for the faint of heart.  One could imagine, given all this build-up that these poets are judged by veteran poets, folks who understand the critical mix of writing and performance.  Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Judges at a Poetry Slam are random audience members who have ideally never attended a Slam before, or at least don’t know any of the competitors.  Judges are given few guidelines, so that the outcome of the Slam is always based on how well the performers move that night’s 5 judges.  Some nights humor wins, some nights the judges reward angst, and some nights rhythm and rhyme take the prize, although some nights not any of those.  Poets get on stage not knowing…heck, the judges usually don’t know what’s going to move them until they’re…well…moved.  It makes for an electrifying experience every time, every week, for about the past 15 years. 

Slam poetry, in its current incarnation, started in 1986 in a bar in Chicago.  Within a few years, there were Poetry Slams in bars across the country, resulting in the first National Poetry Slam in 1991.  In 1992,

Seattle joined the fray with the Seattle Poetry Slam; our city’s longest continually running show. Having been on Tuesday nights for the last year, the Seattle Slam will move back to its old home on Wednesday nights at Tost in September for the start of the new slam season. 

The 2007 Poetry Slam Team started much like the 2006 team did and much like the 2008 team will.  Competition, plain and simple.  In September, performance poets seeking the Slam team put down their pens (at least a little bit) and brush up on memorization, on tightening lines and time, on gesturing bigger and watching themselves in mirrors to see if they are getting enough emotion in their expression on the second practice, the 20th practice, the 50th practice…practice until the words flow as surely as breath flows while simultaneously trying to stay in the moment as much as possible while on stage, in the lights, in the company of folks having some drinks and sometimes getting a bit rowdy. 

 All this brings us back to Austin and the National Poetry Slam in which 75 Poetry Slam venues across North America have, through months of competition, assembled their own Poetry Slam teams to bring the best they have to Austin for this week in August.  The National Slam ran from August 7 – 11, culminating on Friday night with the Individual Finals and Saturday night with the Team Finals.  

But first there are the preliminary bouts. Just calling it a “bout” brings images of a battle; a struggle where there are winners and losers.  Each of the 75 teams will participate in two separate bouts with four other teams over the first three days of the competition. The team’s placement in that bout (1st through 5th) combined with their overall score, will determine their ranking and that ranking will determine whether or not they make it to the next level of competition.  Additionally, individual poets will be ranked throughout the competition with the 10 top ranked poets competing in the Individual Finals. This becomes important later; so remember that part.

Monday, August 6: Welcome to Austin.  It’s 97 degrees, have some iced tea.

Tuesday, August 7: Round 1, Bout #6  Cambridge, MA; Columbus, OH; Berkeley,  CA, Richmond, VA; and Seattle.  In a bout, teams draw to determine performance order and Seattle draws the first slot.  Although first up on stage may be a benefit in some circles, at a Poetry Slam, the scores tend to drift up during competition (a phenomenon called ‘score creep’), so the first slot is a distinct disadvantage.  The Seattle Team finished this first night in fourth place among five teams, and overall placed 35 out of 75 teams. Ryler performs with his team.

Team member Ryler Dustin was on last year’s team and decided he would compete again to get on the team. Ryler started writing when he was 13 and at one point, went to a poetry performance near his home in Bellingham and found it more “human” than the poetry he had read in school.  So Ryler put his in-process novel aside and began writing for the stage. The Bellingham audience took notice and once he ventured south, the

Seattle audience took notice as well.  Ryler was on the 2006 & 2007 Seattle Slam team and twice gone to the Individual World Poetry Slam, including placing 8th out of 70 poets at that event in

Vancouver earlier this year.  For the team this year, Ryler looked forward mostly to the collaboration with other poets in order to develop his own work even more. Of course Ryler’s performance is passionate, and what elevates him among poets is the quality of his writing and his ability to build images in the minds of his audience.  At once innocent and painfully wise, in performance, Ryler blows his screen door across his front yard as a deity in sweat pants and will tell you about his father who somehow becomes like all our fathers until tears flow in the audience. 

Wednesday, August 8: No bouts tonight(man, that’s a cool word) for the Seattle team today, but there are scads of other things that make the National Poetry Slam more than just a competition.  There are panel discussions about slam poetry versus academic poetry, there is a Jewish open mike, a queer open mike, and a women’s open mike.  There are panel discussions for “A Creative Life after Sobriety”, “Slam and The Academy”, and whether or not there is even such a thing as slam poetry. There are even workshops on writing and publishing.  

Seattle is well represented on the national scene and there are workshop presenters, panelists and Poetry Slam legends who have all called

Seattle home.  One of whom is Buddy Wakefield.   

Team member Buddy Wakefield is arguably the best known name in slam poetry, Buddy has spent 9 years doing Poetry Slams and has attended the National Slam 7 times. He has won a myriad of awards and honors including the 2002 Long Beach Grand Slam, the 2003 Seattle Grand Slam, and has been the Individual World Poetry Slam Champion in both 2004 (with the support of anthropologist and producer Norman Lear) and 2005, including rising to the challenge of defending his title in Rotterdam, Netherlands.  Buddy has nearly perfect comic timing and uses plain language, humor and hammer-blows of his voice to challenge and uplift his audience.  Buddy is a poet for whom the intake of breath during a performance will punctuate his words like popping balloons. 

Thursday, August 9: Bout #24, Lincroft, NJ; Durham, NC, Oneonta, NY; St. Paul, MN; and Seattle. Combined with their bout on Tuesday, Seattle finishes the preliminaries ranked 33 of 75 teams. Along with his team, Danny performs. 

Team member Danny Sherrard also decided at some point last Fall that he would compete for the Seattle Team.  At 21, Danny is no stranger to spoken word performance, having been writing and performing with Youth Speaks Seattle since he was 17.  On stage, Danny is a whirlwind of arms, legs and words pulling his audience in tight then launching them with him into ‘the distance’ on a voyage to “the pawnshop at the end of the universe”.  Danny chooses his words carefully and drives each one home with dynamite precision, and will bring the rich surprise of hip-hop rhythms into his work, adding texture to an already packed landscape.

Friday, August 10: Team semi-finals but because Seattle didn’t rank high enough in the preliminary bouts, the competition is over for the Seattle team.  Remember mention of the Individual Finals a moment ago?  Well, at Friday’s Individual Finals Danny Sherrard from Seattle takes first place from among 168 of the finest performance poets in the world. This is huge!  

Team member Tara Hardy, unlike her teammates, didn’t decide in the Fall to pursue the Seattle Slam team.  In the early Spring, as the Slam Season drew to a close, Tara competed in the once a year “Wild Card Slam”.  In typical Slam fashion, the Wild Card Slam ensures that nothing is predictable and no one gets comfortable.  Tara competed in just that one Slam during the whole season and by winning there, made it to the Grand Slam, then to the 2007 team. 

Tara was a member of the Seattle team in 2000, 2002 and in 2007, as well as co-coaching the team in 2001.  For the past several years,Tara has stepped away from the Poetry Slam world and has concentrated on creating and developing the Bent Writing Institute, whose mission is “To promote and encourage written and spoken word among LGBTIQ people and in our communities.”  Up closer it looks like Tara is growing queer writers in her garden and seeding stages with her prodigies. Tara’s performance is always a call to action, in one piece bridging the gulf between her working class roots and her queer identity and in another broadcasting her love for her partner through her tale of his motorcycle.  Saturday night is the Team Finals at the Paramount Theater in Austin.  Five teams will battle it out for top honors in this final competition. The Seattle team is in attendance, flush with Danny’s success from the night before and likely relieved a little to have the pressure off.   

Before they headed to Austin, I spoke with several of the team members separately about their experience so far on this particular team since three of the four had been on Seattle teams in the past.  Consistently, their comments were about the value of collaboration, support, and the integrity of their work.  These poets separately told me about their feeling of connection to every other member of their team and how they felt the National Slam was more a chance to push the envelope of what a Poetry Slam was, than to devise a winning strategy.  Their obvious admiration for each other seemed an ideal dynamic for a team comprised of artists who had just spent several months competing against each other.  

Ryler, Tara, Danny and Buddy will undoubtedly continue to seek their path as poets and performers. They will likely work together again as a team and in duets, but they are unlikely to ever compete nationally as a group again.  The energy they created as they came together for the 2007 National Poetry Slam won’t come again.  So get your pen’s working because September is the beginning of the next Slam Season. Some poets will decide to pursue the Seattle Team, some will decide simply to compete and some will look to the open mike for the first time.  There will be Semi-Final rounds and in the Spring of 2008, next year’s Grand Slam where the top four performers will become the 2008 Seattle Poetry Slam Team.  Enough of that and you get to a semi-final round where (you guessed it) you get to go to the slam, compete, and win.  If you win at the semi-final level, you get to go to the Seattle Grand Slam in the Spring, where you’ll compete against poets who have won just as much as you have and who are skilled and brilliant and passionate and you get to appreciate the purity of their work and then hope that the random audience member with a scorecard in her hand just likes your work better.  You, reading this right now, could be a judge. Hell, you could be a poet on the open mike and in competition. Power to the people indeed.    

At the Grand Slam in the Spring you will see poetry that will move you, piss you off, make you laugh, and finally make you wonder how humans have communicated in any other way than this eloquent, messy, passionate expression. By the way, the National Slam winner this year was CharlotteSlam from Charlotte, NC. Undoubtedly their home audience would have a different story to tell than this one, but that’s for another article.

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