Eyes around the world might be set on London for the Summer Olympics, but another fierce battle for victory is about to take place in Charlotte, North Carolina, using wordplay instead of feats of strength or endurance.
The National Poetry Slam, held this year from Aug 7 - 11 at the Blumenthal Performing Arts centers throughout Charlotte, will feature four nights of head-to-head competition amongst 72 of the best teams in the country, two of which will be there proudly representing Austin.
For those of you not well versed, slam poetry is best described as competitive performance poetry. Slam aims to be accessible and engaging to the masses. Bouts are judged by members of the audience whose typical qualification is that they’ve never been to a slam before. This is poetry for the people: it’s entertaining, moving, hilarious and inspiring all in good measure.
Austin will be represented at Nationals by two teams: Neo-Soul and Austin Poetry Slam (APS). These teams consist of the top finishers from a qualifying slam at each venue featuring the best poets from the preceding year.
Team Neo-Soul consists of Shanitria “Shae” Harris, La-Love Robinson, Zai Sadler, Danny Strack and Korim. Austin Poetry Slam is represented by Good Ghost Bill, Kevin W. Burke, Margaret Ruth Olsen, Zachary Caballero and Keith Ruckus.
Both teams have seen success in recent years at Nationals and both teams are staples of the top 20. Neo-Soul placed 4th in 2010 and 2nd in 2006, while APS finished 3rd in 2008. Austin is one of only a handful of cities with a large enough slam community to house two teams that are this nationally competitive.
Danny Strack is a good representative of the strength of the Austin scene. He serves as Slam Master (host and emcee) at APS and runs that show every week at the 29th Street Ballroom. But this year, Danny is competing on the Neo-Soul team. Running one slam and competing for another is not unheard of, but it’s certainly rare.
“Usually when people do that it’s because one scene is a lot smaller than another,” Stack says. But that's not so in Austin, where both scenes have helped grow each other and where poets on one team regularly visit and support the other. As La-Love Robinson puts it: “We come from a city of phenomenal poets.”
There is of course a certain competitiveness between the two teams, but it is a very friendly one. Last year saw the Neo-Soul and APS teams sharing the stage in the Group Piece final round where they placed 3rd and 4th in the country, respectively.
Group pieces are perhaps the most visible representation of the months of hard work each team has put into preparing for Nationals. The teams were decided in April and the poets have been practicing, writing, and performing together 3-5 nights a week ever since.
“Someone told me once that for every minute of a play you need to do one hour’s worth of practice. I feel like we do more than that: that we take 9 hours on a 3-minute poem,” Strack explains. Beyond the team members, each team has at least one coach to help with writing, performance and strategy and has also received input from the other team and other members of the community.
Each team has also engaged in multiple competitions in the months leading up to Nationals. In June, APS took 2nd place at the Southwest Shootout, a slam over two nights with 12 teams competing from around the Southwest. They lost to Slam Nuba from Denver, who are the reigning national champions.
Neo-Soul recently won the Texas Heat Battle of the Slam Teams, which featured 6 Texan teams, beating APS in the final round. It wasn’t the first time the two have gone head to head: they competed at the Slam Bowl at APS where Austin Poetry Slam beat Neo but ultimately placed 2nd to the They Speak Youth Slam team.
Before they head off to Slam Nationals, the two Austin teams have one friendly competition left to settle the current 1-1 tie. The Austin Slam Scrimmage will be held this Tuesday at the Austin Poetry Slam. APS, Neo-Soul, Killeen Poetry Slam and Mic Check will face off against each other in a team bout as the final competitive warm-up prior to Nationals.
Come see what sort of explosive words Austin's best poets are taking to Nationals and help send them off with a little hometown love.