It is the night of the blood moon and the San Diego Grand Slam – the event that will determine the 2014 San Diego Poetry Slam team (known as Elevated!), which will compete at the National Poetry Slam in Oakland in August. This team, the seventh one that San Diego has sent to Nationals, has a lot to live up to since last year’s team was the first to make it to Finals Stage, where they placed fourth out of 72 teams from the U.S. and Canada.
Each of the 13 poets vying for the coveted five team spots have earned the right to compete, having earned top scores in eight qualifying slams. The San Diego poetry slam is held the second Monday of every month (qualifying slams from September to April) at Queen Bee’s in North Park, while the first and third Thursday of every month, the same venue hosts Elevated!, a poetry open mic with a featured performer that draws slam-style performances and a full house.
Tonight, just like at every poetry event, the line stretches down Ohio Street; everyone has $5 in hand for the cover. Inside, competitors hear the rules as stated by Slam Master and coach, Chris Wilson. In a nutshell, poets have three minutes with a 10-second grace period. No props, no musical accompaniment, and no repeats. They select numbers to determine appearance order for the first round (all 13 poets). In the second round, the order reverses for the top nine, and in the last round, six poets appear from lowest to highest score. Scores are cumulative through each round.
The room fills up quickly. A DJ spins tunes while the crowd finds seats. Thrumming bass electrifies the room. The crowd buzzes.
Five judges are selected at random from the audience. Judges don’t need experience with poetry or the slam, and they can’t know or have any connection to the competitors. They will score each performance from 0-10, zero being the worst thing they’ve ever heard, and ten being the very best: like honey in your ear, a million dollars in your pocket, and the best kiss you’ve ever had. The high and low score are dropped and the remaining three make up the final score, making 30 the highest score. Judges are told not to be influenced by the audience, while the audience is told to do everything in their power to influence the judges, including responding to the poet as they “spit.” The judges’ biggest job is to be consistent.
It is part of the Slam Master’s duties to keep the crowd into it, the judges on task, and the show moving. Chris Wilson begins the way every slam begins – by imparting a bit of history. The poetry slam was started in the ’80s by a construction worker in Chicago named Marc Smith (“So what?!” – there is some call and response involved in this night out – those who get it are enthusiastic and those who are new catch on quickly). After the housekeeping, the sacrificial poet is “offered” to get the poetry flowing and to allow the judges to calibrate their scoring. From there, it’s on.
After three energy-packed, poetry-filled hours that cover relationships, immigration, bullying, higher education, bacon, racism, cutting, sexual assault, redheads, fathers, and more, the scores are tallied and the 2014 Elevated! team is announced: Suede Cursive, Ant Black, the Saint, Rudy Francisco, and the grand slam champion, Treesje Powers, who takes home $500 and who will represent Elevated! at the Individual World Poetry Slam (iWPS) in Phoenix in October.
Now it’s time to work (rehearsing, fundraising, writing, performing). On an overcast June afternoon, the team gathers to practice. Ant Black and Suede Cursive work on a duo piece. Rudy Francisco and the Saint run through solo pieces. Coach Chris gives advice, challenges, and critiques. They do an exercise where two members stand face-to-face, about a foot apart, and do a poem at the same time. It’s to work on eye contact and to own their space while being aware of the environment.
I ask about their slam experience and what they’re excited about for Nationals.
Rudy, an accomplished poet (2009 National Underground Poetry Slam Champion, 2010 San Diego Grand Slam Champion, 2010 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion, and on his seventh slam team) is most excited that Nationals are back in California for the first time since 1993. “It’s been kind of a myth. People say, ‘good luck,’ and then we tell them stories when we get back. Now, they can come to Oakland and be part of it.”
Ant, a sociology professor, is on Elevated! for a fifth time. He adds, “I’m going to be able to invite family and friends.”
The Saint, originally from the Bay Area, is eager to represent where he lives now in the place where he got his start. “It’s like going home.” Also a seasoned veteran, he’s been on teams for Oakland, San Francisco, and Stockton.
Suede has never slammed outside San Diego but is up for the challenge. He likens it to being a freshman at football camp. “It’s difficult being the rookie. It’s hard as hell, but worth it.”
Treesje lives in Rancho Cucamonga. “It’s a serious commitment, but I’m learning a lot. Plus I’m so proud to be the only woman on the team as well as the representative for iWPS.” Her experience includes San Diego once before as well as the Inland Empire team.
Coach Chris, slam master since 2007, is most excited about the diversity of his team. “I can’t wait for people to experience this team, to hear their stories, and to see the world from their eyes.”
People who can take so many facets of the human condition, condense it to three minutes, and still pack a punch are worthy of attention. As Shelley wrote, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”
Listen. Here is the Elevated! schedule:
July 8 Lyrical Exchange,Queen Bee’s, 8 pm
July 22 Neo-Soul Tuesday, Onyx Room, 9 pm
July 31 Battle for San Diego, Queen Bee’s (all poetry levels represented: an LA team, Elevated!, a pick-up San Diego team, a youth team, and a college team), 8 pm
Keep up with Elevated! and donate to the cause at www.collectivepurpose.org. Follow all the action of the National Poetry Slam (August 5-9) at http://nps2014.poetryslam.com/.