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Slam Poetry: A Beautiful Paradox
Milwaukee’s National Poetry Slam Team Returns from West Palm Beach

Ryan Hurley works for a non-profit arts education organization in Milwaukee called Arts @ Large (www.artsatlargeinc.org) and hosts a monthly open mic/art gallery at Brewed Awakenings on Brady Street.

I’ve never seen an airport hold so few people. It seems that even the security guards are too tired at 4 a.m. to patrol the waiting area by the closed ticket counters. I have counted only seven people in the entire airport, but every single one of them is huddled into a small circle bursting with life. This is spoken word poetry.

As a member of the Milwaukee National Poetry Slam Team, along with Shelly Davis, Dan Vaughn, Haze and Mario the Poet, I have just returned from the National Poetry Slam, which was held in West Palm Beach, Florida this year.  This annual event hosts nearly 70 teams from across the United States, along with a few International teams from France and Canada, bringing thousands of poets together for one unhinged week of poetry.

From left to right (Mario the Poet, Ryan Hurley, Shelly Davis, Haze, Dan Vaughn)
Photo Credit Andrea LaCroix

Slam Poetry is the competitive sphere of spoken word poetry. Each poet or group of poets is given three minutes to perform while five judges, chosen at random from the audience, assign the poem a score between one and ten.  It seems ridiculous to have strangers judge someone’s art on a numeric scale as if the poet were an Olympic gymnast, but it is this competitive ploy that has made spoken word and slam poetry such a broad-spectrum art form in the last decade. (Which is why you can occasionally hear me yelling, “Ten,” as loud as a hypocrite when I hear a poem that pleases my insides.)

While some spoken word artists who compete will write with the judges in mind, most quickly learn that the arbitrariness with which the judges are selected can make a poet who is expectant of high scores extremely disappointed and even disenfranchised with the art form. On any given night the group of judges could include a batch of creative writing professors or a gaggle of drunken bar patrons who keep ordering Jager bombs while you bare your soul on the stage.  Not to say that the second group couldn’t appreciate well written and performed poetry anymore that college professors, spoken word poetry is far from confined by academia, but that it is difficult to write with a target demographic in mind. Which is why whenever I facilitate writing workshops with young people I make sure that they write for themselves first and if the audience or judges and are able to connect with what they have to say, that is a bonus.

The MKE Slam Team has been gathering in basements and living rooms for the last four months tightening up our individual pieces and collaborating to write group pieces.  Group pieces take up the majority of our basement time and become the most unique aspect of being on a “poetry team.” It is the meshing of individual styles, both performance and writing, and their ability to compliment each other that gives this small collaboration such a powerful voice. For example, Haze and I wrote a piece about our experiences being youth workers and how some kids tend to become too attached and occasionally view us as father figures. Haze, who typically writes full of rhyme and rhythm, was able to play with new writing styles while I, with a more low key performance style, was able to adopt some of his tenacity and stage presence.

We didn’t have much time to enjoy the scorching heat of West Palm Beach before our first competition. We took first out of four teams in our first “bout,” which consists of four teams competing for four rounds, and third place in our second bout. This put us right on the bubble of making semi-finals, and I woke at 3:30 a.m. Friday morning to a teammate beaming with good news. This is the first year in my three trips to NPS that my team has made semi-finals, which is the top 20 teams based on rankings and point scores of the first two bouts. This was exciting, not because we could brag by the hotel swimming pool that we were the next generation of Beat Poets revolutionizing the almighty word, but because it gave us a chance to share more of our work with a much larger group of people.

(Dan Vaughn, Ryan Hurley)
Photo Credit Andrea LaCroix

Although we didn’t take first place in our semi-final bout against teams from New York, Hawaii, Chino and Austin we gave venerable performances and were excited to hear that our fellow Midwesterners, St. Paul, made it to the final stage. The finals included teams from San Francisco, Albuquerque, St. Paul and New York and when all was spoken and scored St. Paul was able to represent the Midwest and deservingly bring home the first place trophy.

The after party has become one of my favorite parts of NPS through the years. This is not because I particularly enjoy dancing (I’m terrible) or shouting 80s rock ballads at the top of my lungs (don’t know the words), but more so because it brings together the most eclectic group of people one could possibly piece together.

Poetry knows no boundaries when it comes to gender, race, sexual orientation or hair color. If you were to ask someone who spent time in West Palm Beach last week if they could describe the majority of the poets, one could only respond with, “They were poets.” This dynamic reflects the array of topics presented at NPS. We heard pieces about gays in the military, a persona piece from the viewpoint of Middle Eastern sand, and a beautiful piece about East and West Germany in the late 1980s as the Berlin Wall was falling.  Spoken word poetry provides an artistic platform to discuss politics, prejudices, love, humor, or an open letter to Michelle Obama from her self-proclaimed stalker.  All beauty and strangeness is welcomed with open arms.

Back in the airport, Haze steps into the middle of the circle and performs a poem with the same passion he would have if our team had made it to the final stage. Halfway through his piece I step up and bounce around, imitating a popular group piece by a team from New Jersey highlighting the advantages of having a Flavor Flav-esque “hype-man” pushing everything you do one step further. We get some tired applause as the ticket counters yawn open.

As the West Palm Beach sky begins to shake the stars and wake light blue, Haze and I soar toward the Midwest with weary eyes and precious souvenirs. Being his first time at Nationals, Haze took in a vast amount of various styles of poetry in just six short days, and I feel reinvigorated to write and perform but most importantly utilize this art form for it’s amazing ability to unite people around the word.

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