Wednesday, March 16, 2005

REV: 2005 Austin Under-21 Slam

I was in east Texas for the weekend doing seminar trips at an Environmental Educator's Conference and hoped i might get to Austin in the evening in time to catch some SXSW flick action. Besides the passes being sold out, i couldn't find a schedule anywhere, even at Waterloo, and had left mine at home. So after stumbling around needlessly for an hour, i stopped in at Ruta Maya for something delicious and came across the final championship slam to designate the 2005 Under-21 Team to head to nationals. Well, i knew this was coming up but had lost track of it somewhere, and so my stumbling in (right at opening announcements) was purely fortuitous.

But since i have a soft spot for slam (see the links to the left) and have worked with a number of students and kids who will be slam stars someday, there was no more reason to go looking for film.

I was immediately accosted by my good friend and exceptional poet and poetry promoter Thom Woodruff, who everyone knows better as Thom the World Poet. He continues to be a magnificent inspirer for anyone interested in performance poetry. I am always amazed at his output and sheer energy to keep words flying through espace and airspace. Good to see him.

Also present were some of the leading lights of Austin (and National) slam -- Matthew John Conley (of Albuquerque, Minneapolis and Austin slam fame), the enigmatic Christopher Lee (one of the finest real poets working in slam in my mind), DaShade Moonbeam (the current Austin Slam Champion), LaLove Robinson (new to me but a fine welcoming sacrificial poet), three-time Austin team member Andy Buck (another of those i consider at the top of the slam heap), and two-time Austin team member Tony Jackson. And of course there were probably others present that i missed seeing.

And then there were the judges: Mayor Will Wynn (literarily who knew?), state rep Mark Strama who is no stranger to slams (with a long history of neighborhood advocacy in Austin it was extra special for him to sit and hear the various political and personal rants about equality - even if he is already a Democrat - the same as it was for the Mayor to get a taste of his urban fiefdom), Dr. Marcus Nelson from Austin ISD, Ric Williams from the Austin Chronicle, and the members of Unified Tribe.


Celebrity judge panels are nothing knew to slam -- but i'd rather see the celebs come out to listen to the slam because there's something worth hearing, and stick to the honored slam tradition of picking random people from the audience to judge. And that comment was not meant to imply that celeb judges would do or were doing anything improper, only that it'd be nice if they were there on their own, and to honor the populist flavor of what slam is all about.

So let's get to the real topic -- the young poets of Austin. Let me say that, as a slam poet, and a critic of a sort, i'll have my own view here of who i'd like to have seen win. That is in no way a condemnation of the ones who did win, nor of the process (which i really, really like and support) -- just that i had my own favorites and i'd ask for folks to read on to my own brief analysis of slam styles to know more about my choices.

There were 11 poets present of 12 who apparently qualified. Almost all had a high school or college affiliation and were chosen by winning school slams or Austin Youth Slams over the past few months. I don't want to get into all the details of how slam teams and champs are chosen -- let's just say you can go to the National Slam site for basics (although the youth slams are governed by another organization, slam has generally done what few other competitive organizations have managed -- to maintain a modicum of adherence to a general idea of rules while allowing some freedom for the moment).


What you need to know here is that some of the process was almost determined on the fly at Ruta Maya but apparently traditional heads prevailed (which is a good thing). From the 11, eight were picked to go on to a second round, and from there the final team of four was chosen and given another round to determine a champ.

Of the group, i would have chosen Shannon Leigh (St. Andrews High School), Clark Perry who goes by Greyt White (St. Edwards U.), Jonathan who goes by Young Star (Stony Point High School), and Jay (Reagan High School). Leigh and Jay actually were chosen. Third was Gator (Reagan High School), and the fourth chosen was Phillip (apparently unaffiliated) who only made the final cut after a slamoff with Young Star but then walked away as the overall champ.

So, yeah, the guy who won the whole thing was not even on my list.

The four i chose had something going for them that none of the others did in my opinion -- except for Phillip. They all were poets in the deepest sense.

Slam was conceived by Marc Smith as a way to bring poetry back to the masses, to involve folks personally in performance. Much has been said about what it takes to win in slam, eloquently by slammaster Mike Henry i think, but what it comes down to in my mind is that just being able to get up and deliver your words to an audience constitutes the win.

But slam does have a competitive aspect to it and so there is strategy of a kind involved. Over the years i've watched slam (since 1990) there has been a very distinctive evolution in style. Much of this has had to do with the geography of its spread. I am certain that we could divine Chicago, New York and San Francisco styles, but i'm going to stay closer to home and say that at least until very recently there were even very distinctive Austin, San Antonio and Dallas styles.

In addition, there were styles within styles -- political rants, personal harangues, emotional soliloquys, standup comedy and various things in between. In the last four years or so hip-hop has played a larger and larger part, especially as youngsters come into slam from the music angle instead of the writing angle.

What's important here is that sometimes slam forgot about poetry in my opinion. Of course many will argue that poetry cannot be so narrowly defined and i could argue that angle myself i suppose. But there IS a difference in simply telling a story and in using words to evoke a story, and that latter is where i want my poetry to go.

Obviously, i'm irrelevant since i wasn't and am not judging any slam in particular, and even if i do, which i have, i am only one-fifth (or one-third depending on your viewpoint) of the opinion. Nevertheless, for me slam is still labelled poetry and should aspire to that.

So, most of the youngsters performing the other night went the Austin-style route with rants about personal, social and political injustices. These are powerful moments that need to be unleashed -- and are the most powerful things a young life can expound upon. But when they never proceed beyond 'i've been wronged, so screw you' then the narrow audience that identifies with that pain is all that is left to cheer. Ostensibly, if injustice is done, one is seeking redress and that is hard to come by by simply delivering insults. That's where poetry -- getting a message through subliminally -- is the greater art. And then everyone applauds, and perhaps things change.

Most of the pure ranters didn't get through, though they often got thundering standing O's.

My biggest disappointment was in Greyt White not making even the second round. He seemed to deliver poetry to me. I do think he was a victim of a tie-breaker somewhere (the night's scoring was extremely tight and very high -- as Conley said, "They're booing 9.8s, at Ego's we'd be going 'whoa, i got a 9.8!'"). Anyway, when the second round rolled up he wasn't there. He was a member of last year's team that competed in LA and won fifth in the nation. His style is very animated as well. He clears off the stage and does his work mike in hand. Unfortunately we got only one taste of him Sunday, but i hope you'll be reading more about him here soon.

Of the ones who did make it, let's take those i went with first. Jay and Gator were both in rant mode, but Jay stepped over that line into poetry with his work, and sure enough i think that's what propelled him into the final four. He was especially strong in the early going, and he came into the last round with the highest score and total, but i think he'd spent himself early. His last piece was delivered with paper in hand (which was SOP in the old days, but now it's not often seen, especially at championship events), and he fumbled it a couple of times. The crowd was so with him that i think he'd have been the Austin champ were it not for the uncertainty of that last piece.

Shannon Leigh is a long-time favorite of mine. I first saw her when she had just started slamming (at one of Thom the World Poets venues just after 9/11) -- i think she was 14 and an eighth-grader at the time. She submitted her performed piece and i published her in The Black Widow & The Brown Recluse, my student writers ezine. She also read with my student group, The Locker Room Writers & Thinkers Workshop when we were invited to the Texas Book Festival at the state capitol. She has matured gracefully as a poet without losing any of her punch. The piece she did on hip-hop Sunday would have won many a slam i've been at. She was spectacular.

Also on the team is Gator, who i've not seen before. He was a rant style performer. Without dissing on him, he simply was of the style i don't care for. The crowd though was behind him every step of the way, and the judges thought he was dynamite too. Having a huge Reagan crowd was probably to both his and Jay's benefit.

Lastly, the winner Phillip. This is a tough one for me to adjudicate. He did have the poetry in some of his pieces, and yet in others he didn't. His first piece, Hot Sauce sure got the crowd fired up. It came across to me as both shallow and punitive. But the objects of his putdowns seemed to be those who liked it the most. I don't know, maybe i didn't get it. It also suffered from trying too hard to be funny i thought, and to that end used faux poetic word twists without really being poetic.


Oddly, i thought his weakest piece was the last one, the one he used to win. I feel like he probably had three prepared pieces for the night (kind of standard among slammers), and when he was called up to do the slamoff used his best piece (IMHO) to make the team (while his opponent Jonathan/Young Star i think did the opposite, chose to save his best piece and pulled out another to try to make the team -- a choice which probably cost him). Further evidence that Phillip made that kind of decision is that he verbally tossed off his last piece by saying something like 'well, i'll just go back to a humor thing.' But the crowd, typically, liked humor. As it happens, it was so inconsequential that i can't even remember what it was about -- maybe i will later. In any case it was his middle two that were his best pieces -- and very good ones at that.

Now, here's something else about him by way of explanation -- it's why, i think, i wouldn't have picked him, but it's also likely no one else in the house had any clue about. His first three pieces, as each one started, sounded to me exactly like something else i'd heard before. It didn't take me long to figure out why. He sounded, at times, exactly like Andy Buck, or Matthew John Conley, or DaShade Moonbeam, or Christopher Lee. I thought i even heard bits of Genevieve Van Cleve and Ernie Cline and Jeff Knight in there. In verbiage, in style, in delivery, in everything. I'd bet that Phillip has spent much time watching and learning from the masters. Mimicry, flattery and all that. Well great, until it is only mimicry. He has some great material, but he needs to deliver it as himself. Enough said.

Ron Horne and Dr. Sheila Siobhan are the masterminds of this new Austin slam group. They call it Texas Youth Word Collective and via their literature they not only have inspired and noble goals but have already accomplished many of them, including taking a team to nationals last year, with this new team headed the same direction. This is major worthy in my mind. I especially salute them at accomplishing something i've been trying for a long time in a smaller town (with limited success) -- to get kids to express themselves in a performance venue. So congratulations.

They're raising money too -- so if you've a mind to, check out
www.txywc.org .

I bought their DVD Sunday, and don't mind having done so as a means of helping their efforts, but . . . the video is of the nationals trip last year and is poor. I'm hoping that this year's use of two or three high-end cameras allows for a better product. The DVD is an adequate document, but the video is poor, and the audio is worse. One would hope for better views of the young participants, but more especially for the chance to actually hear what they have to say -- that is after all what slam is about. In some of the poems hardly a word is discernible, and in every case enough is lost as to make it nearly impossible to follow the piece. And that's a shame since some of them are remarkable pieces (including Shannon's hip hop work). There is video here of Saul Williams in a magical performance as well and that alone would be worth the DVD.


There is more slam coming up: March is SXSW; April is International Poetry Month and the Austin International Poetry Festival (founded by our friend Thom) will be in full swing; April 9th -- Citywide Slam Team Bout; April 20-24 Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Festival, San Francisco; August 10-13 -- National Poetry Slam, Albuquerque, New Mexico; April 2006 -- Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Festival, New York; August 2006 -- The National Poetry Slam returns to Austin!; April 2008 -- Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Festival, Austin

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