About an hour into the competition, I’ve seen only a couple of bingos so far—fortunately, most of the work tonight falls beyond the predictable grid. The Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, is packed, with half the crowd local spoken-word fans and the other half poets from previous bouts, all eager to hear the top 10 poets of the weeklong competition. Up front, five randomly picked judges flip their scorecards to reveal marks on a scale of 0 to 10, with the highest and lowest scores dropped to curb extremes; the highest possible score is 30. They’re asked to consider content, performance, and originality, and to ignore the other thousand people in the audience, who boo and heckle when the numbers don’t play out the way they want, and stand in throngs chanting “Ten! Ten! Ten!” in an attempt to influence the scores.
Then there’s the bingo-playing snark of the Statler and Waldorf crowd, slinging critiques between mouthfuls of popcorn and gin rickeys. These are the veterans, the seventh-year stringers who have heard every slam cliché often enough to sing along. But in between the chanting hype and the jaded few, there’s also the middle-school English teacher who says she’s never heard poetry like this, the retired engineer who thought the evening would be a boring recital, and the 21-year-old busboy in the faded T-shirt who started scribbling rhymes in a notebook just a few years ago.
Tonight, that kid is on stage. Danny Sherrard describes himself as “so skinny that when I inhale you could take a drumstick and play my ribcage like a xylophone.” Halfway through the second round, Sherrard stands with a loose posture and natural grin, full of scruffy sincerity and lines that unravel abstractions of Sufism and pumpkins and Windex rainbows. It’s a cleansing energy. The audience roars.
Soon they’re heading into the final round, and emcee Mike Henry announces the last four poets standing: Alvin Lau (Chicago), Danny Sherrard (Seattle), Shannon Leigh (Atlanta), and Christopher Michael (Killeen, Texas). The judges wipe out the points for a clean slate. For these poets, this round determines the win.
As the first in rotation, Alvin Lau knows he has to start strong. He takes a primed stance, steady in jeans, T-shirt, and a hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves rolled up. “For the break-dancers,” he announces, and the crowd bubbles with expectant laughter. Suddenly, Lau begins his tribute to the hip-hop dance style:
you make breakdancing a mystic artAs he delivers these lines, Lau pops and locks, performing a series of arm, hand, and wrist movements that make him look like an animatronic dancer doing tai chi, all set to the rhythm and sense of the spoken lines. Meanwhile, the sign-language translator at stage right gestures furiously to keep up, as if moving in a dance of her own. Naturally, this pushes toward sensory overload. But a rush of language, image, and gesture is common in slam, even if you can catch only a metaphor here, an allusion there. In the snap judgment of the scoring, Lau receives a 29.4 out of 30.
at three a.m. west side
public park practice sessions
an abandoned YMCA turns
into Baba Yaga’s hut
crews sling bones of fallen battle cats
like blood and dice
you fought for Helen’s hand on Troy’s shore
and Achilles fell to a shot of your style
a flaming arrow illuminating the skyline
Danny Sherrard returns to the stage next, and again his lanky charm carries him halfway to our hearts before he even speaks. Though he pegs a “bingo” cliché (reference to a third eye: check), he also offers lines like “she wears clothes made of concrete / and they’re so tight her body bleeds starlight” as if they have just occurred to him, while his rapid delivery of “earthquakes of the spirit or subway trains on fire” slows down just enough to stick the landing. He takes a perfect 30.
A 30 is rare, even with “score creep” (a phenomenon in which the judges give higher numbers in response to the increasing energy of the night and the audience’s insistence on higher scores), so at this point the competition appears to be for second place. But as Shannon Leigh begins, I’m astonished at what I hear. Leigh is 19 years old, wide-eyed, and unassuming—until she steps in front of the microphone, although a flash of the tattoo on her forearm or the sudden resolve in her posture might give it away. Early on, her poem is darker, more twisted, and more novel than I expect: “let me be the fire with you, the glossolalia / of a forgotten god, claw tongues out of me, lay me down / like an epileptic on the road to Damascus.” The thrust then becomes an anaphora of sexual rhythm:
fuck me like I was possessed, fuck an exorcism in me
fuck me like I’ve sold my body for money, like I
have killed my child and wept for joy, fuck me
on a bed made of your skin
I will fuck you like it will kill me
What could be disturbing on the page sounds more like a raw and inexorable ritual in performance, and the crowd is happy to cheer her on. The judges give Leigh a 29.8.
Again, one of the youngest slam poets has proven the power of the unexpected. While neither Sherrard nor Leigh have reached the height of their craft, both pack the surprise of short, thin white kids with tsunamis in their back pockets. The shock of the preternatural is half its force.
We see a contrasting force in Christopher Michael, a tall Texan wearing a T-shirt tucked behind a medallion-sized belt buckle. Michael caps the third round with a piece more direct, more outward and outraged than the self-folding verse of the previous two poets. “Soulja to Soldier” is a consciously political poem. It’s built on familiar indictments of the Iraq war, the Bush administration, and social complicity, but also of those who blindly disrespect the armed services without direct knowledge—and this experience is what sets Michael apart from other political poets. The poem speaks of his 12 years in the military and of witnessing the death of a fellow soldier. After a flurry of invective, in its last lines the poem turns into a tribute to the troops and a solid salute.
It’s impossible to reject this sentiment, even as the more cynical critics mark “Iraq” and “Bush bashing” on their bingo cards. As the poet and critic Susan Somers-Willett has suggested, it’s not simply the content or even the orality of slam that carries it, but the reception. Without editors, without gatekeepers, the audience is all. The room floods with cheers, and the judges deliver another perfect score. Another 30. A tie.
Shortly, Mike Henry steps out and explains the tiebreaker: Danny Sherrard and Christopher Michael will each do one more poem, but instead of numerical scores, the judges will have to wait for both poets to perform and then pick one or the other. Eager applause mingles with a few cries of frustration (the stakes are high, as is the tension). After a quick coin flip, Michael steps out and performs his last poem, “mystory,” a criticism of ethnocentric history and a tribute to the unheralded African American contributions to science, literature, and culture. Sherrard, intentionally or not, then echoes the theme of institutional education as a corrosive power. He smiles through lines about a kindergarten experience: a time when he drew God with “fountain fingers, mountains, and rainbow tears,” but suffered the wrath of a literal-minded teacher who crumpled his vision and threw it away. Even if the poem’s defense of creative freedom sounds mawkish in theory, Sherrard’s charm carries it, pushes past any crossed-arm reservations and leaves the audience gushing. “I just want to hug him,” says a girl in the row behind me.
But for the judges, the call is hardly clear. One could argue for hours that apples are shiny and red, while oranges are bumpy and, you know, orange, but ultimately they have to choose between two very different poets. This event, more than a typical poetry reading, makes the case for a live review more than a literary review. Even the verse savant who could clutch these lines out of thin air and envision them as lineated text would be hard-pressed to mull them over, to make a clear judgment before the crowd starts shouting. From the stadium seats, any spontaneous appraisal is impressionistic, all gut and adrenaline.
Without deliberation, Mike Henry asks the judges to raise their score tablets on the count of three if they vote for Christopher Michael. Two tablets go up. For Danny Sherrard? Three tablets. Sherrard, a first-year competitor and the youngest to ever hold the title, takes the trophy and the standing ovation. But he also takes on a bewildering rock star status, an unending series of hugs from strangers, a stack of sweaty business cards, and questions about his agent—does he have an agent? And everyone wants to know if he can come to their town next, their club or school or stadium, if he’s interested in a tour, if he’ll just take the card, take the card and think about it, as he’s adored and pawed at, stumbling in the vertigo of sudden fame.