The Oakland Poetry Slam team triumphed at the Brink Lounge Thursday night in a qualifying bout of the 2008 National Poetry Slam. Throughout a raucous evening that saw the Brink's back room crowded with boisterous spectators, Oakland fought off competition from San Francisco's City Slam, which placed second, followed by hometown favorites Madison Spoken Word Collective and Amarillo, Texas' Slamarillo.
It was not a night for subtleties. The performances' effectiveness had as much to do with their raw emotionalism as the quality of the poetry -- which, amid the shouting and snapping of the crowd, wasn't always easy to make out.
Many of the pieces were good-humored, none more so than a broadly comic ensemble performance by the Madisonians Josh Healy, Ryan Hurley, Eric Mata, and Danez J. Smith. Parodying doo-wop conventions, the performers extolled the sexual attractiveness of Nala, the lioness character of the animated Disney film The Lion King. Other funny moments included a reflection by Madison's Evy Gildrie-Voyles on Voltron, the 1980s animated television series, as well as a sexually provocative work by Amarillo's Fight Club Jenna, who rendered a barrage of double-entendres in -- fittingly for a poetry event -- metaphors of grammar and punctuation. "I want to take your dangling participle and place it between my parentheses," she purred, as the audience hooted.
But much of the material concerned sterner topics: racism, cancer, abortion. In one of the event's most harrowing interludes, Oakland's nerCity delivered a piece that began, "I've got heroin in my family," then explored the grim toll of drug abuse. "Mommy was too vain to shoot into her vein," he intoned, and then described how she instead injected drugs between her toes.
Still, the performers seemed always mindful that the contest was being decided by the audience, so that even the starkest works were enlivened by crowd-pleasing wordplay. In a group work by the Amarillo team, Jose Raul Rodarte described in shattering detail the atrocities of the mass killing in Darfur, but still got a laugh when he proposed that MTV could educate American youths about the horrors with a show called Pimp My Genocide.
The most effective performances tended, not coincidentally, to be the most focused. Others, like one by Amarillo's TVhead Jimmy, were rambling disquisitions that, while undeniably forceful and passionate, lacked a clear point. And since this was a competitive event, even good performers risked scoring lower than they might because of fouls -- perhaps the night's most stirring work, one by Oakland's D.Dra about sexual abuse, received a time penalty.
Madison received a 111.1, enough to put them in third but behind the teams from Oakland and San Francisco, but eliminating them from making the semifinal round on Friday at the Overture Center.
But when the bout's scoring results were announced, the Brink Lounge audience warmly rewarded each team with cheering and applause. I took this is as a sign that the spoken-word community is a healthy and supportive one. The National Poetry Slam may be a competitive event, but ultimately, it's about the poetry.