With orientation underway and most teams checked into their hotels, the scene is one of jubilation on the opening day of the National Poetry Slam.
Pockets of poets smoke outside the Concourse Hotel on Tuesday afternoon, as various team members discuss their journey to Madison while others meet up with friends from distant cities. They look relaxed, relieved to be in town and at the destination they've been preparing for over months. Upstairs in the registration room, the National Poetry Slam artistic director Dasha Kelly is handing out registration packets.
"There was a lot of nail biting because you want things to go smoothly," she says, "and I think that the things that were bumpy we were able to work out."
Just a few hours later on State Street, nervousness is building. A team from San Francisco is meticulously studying the map at a downtown bus stop, trying to figure out directions to the Bartell Theatre where they're set to perform in less than ten minutes at one of the first competitions of the night. Outside the Orpheum Stage Door just before the second bout, another poet in a pretty floral dress rubs her stomach, trying to calm the nerves stirring inside. Meanwhile, teams that competed in the first bout are now done, and leave their venues looking relived to go see other teams compete.
Some teams have good reason to be on edge. The team from Paris -- after much excitement surrounding their participation -- hit a snag en route. One of the four team members was unable to attend and, as a result, the team was disqualified from the slam for having only three members.
Paris faced up against Toronto, Chicago and Durham at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in one of the first bouts of competition. Despite the language barrier, the team performed in French with a PowerPoint presentation translating behind them, Paris won, but will not count because of the disqualification. Instead, the Hayti Heritage Center team from Durham, North Carolina, who came in a close second in the ratings, will be the official winners of the bout.
"It was tough because I think all of us were trying to figure out how to reach the judges," said Durham poet Dasan Ahanu. "They were consistent and they were steady. But they put the responsibility on us to figure out what they want, what they could relate to. And I still don't know what that is. One thing I felt about this bout; you got to see more of a variety of styles that we would have had the judges been more obvious."
Poem topics ran the gamut from the funny to the bizarre. A Toronto team member performed a satirical crowd pleaser on advertising, while Paris's Jean Luc received the judge's highest score of the night with a piece about how "not everyone can be Karl Marx."
Chicago's Amy Damon brought emotion to the stage with "How to forget the man who left you," and Durham's Train of Thoughtz belted out, "If it takes a village to raise a child/ then we've let our children roam," a piece about the responsibility of parents to instill real skills in their children. Durham's Novokane received the only "10" of the bout with "I pledge allegiance to my X chromosome," a piece about respecting women.
Denver Nuba dominated their slam at the Stage Door with a final score of 116.8. The team performed a number of well-received group pieces, the most crowd-pleasing of which was a funny and poignant piece about what might and might not happen if Obama is elected president.
Madison's team won't compete onstage until Wednesday night, but Milwaukee faced stiff competition from Phoenix, Boise and the 2007 National Poetry Slam champion SlamCharlotte. While the North Carolina team clinched the bout title, Milwaukee came in a very close second.
"We'll take that one with pride," said Kelly, the slam master for Milwaukee.
After midnight, the competitions were over for the day, and participants were able to relax a little as they headed out to events like the Hip Hop Headquarters at Café Montmartre and the Slam Master's Slam at the Bartell.
At Montmartre, solo poets with a hip hop slant from all over the country signed up to perform while accompanied by a live DJ and a raucous crowd. Madison's former grand slam champ, Kyle "El Guante" Myhre, hosted the show along with international slammer Jive Poetic. Crowd favorites included the former Madisonian now competing on the St. Paul team and "Mischief Mike," hailing from California.
Next door at the Bartell, Kelly and her cohorts were battling in the Slam Master's Slam. It's the mother of battles. Although a competition, many of these slammers -- who are their respective team mentors and coaches -- are close to one another. Stephan Sampson, hailing from Corpus Christi, Texas, won the event, and the crowd was treated to an encore performance about the love of food.
"I loved it. From year to year it depends on the host and what mood the slam masters are in and I think last night was a really good showcase of the people who organize these events in their cities," says Kelly. "Of all the ones I've been to I think I enjoyed this one the most, and not just because it was here in Madison."
While attendance has been good so far, organizers continue to try to get the word out.
"We are hoping to see continued crowds throughout the week," Kelly concludes. "The poets really want to be able to perform for Madison at large. We've gotten pretty good numbers and we hope to see many more. These poets really want to perform for the Madison community at large."