Literature 7-20-2005

Daring to Disturb the Universe: SlamMN! team prepares for trip to National Poetry Slam

Paul Lundgren listened to the top Minnesota slammers as they hone their stuff for the National Poetry Slam, August 9 - 13 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Will this crew of housepainters, stock dealers, musicians and others prevail?

Cynthia French
Matthew Rucker
Shane Hawley
Toussaint Morrison
Exacto Commando

“I wanna love you like Spam, so mooshy it’s gross.”

You can bet those words didn’t come from the poetry of a slender, middle-aged man with a moustache and a corduroy sport coat.

No, it’s from the work of Shane Hawley, a 24-year-old, hoodie-wearing slam poet who transfers stock by day from his lonely Wells Fargo cubicle. At night he prowls the stages of the Twin Cities spoken word scene, honing his act for another trip to the National Poetry Slam, held this year in Albuquerque, N.M., from August 9 through 13.

Hawley is part of the SlamMN! team, a group Minnesota poets chosen by virtue of their victories in slams held on the second Tuesday of every month at Kieran’s Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis. This year will be Hawley’s fourth year representing the SlamMN! team at nationals.

“This is the best team we’ve had,” he said after a performance in Duluth’s NorShor Theatre in late June. “This will probably be the first year I like more people on the team than I hate.”

His teammates were all in earshot when Hawley said this, and they didn’t seem to know for sure if he was being facetious or sincere, or if they were being complimented or insulted. But they shrugged off the comment as if it was typical of a poet whose work contains remarks like: “God is hot.”

An audience of about 60 gathered at the NorShor to hear the SlamMN! team perform as featured readers in the recently established Foghorn Poetry Series. The Duluth crowd clearly enjoyed the show, particularly Matthew Rucker’s poem asserting that “nerds are sexy,” and Toussaint Morrison’s story of a party where people keep congregating outside and disturbing the neighborhood despite his repeated insistence that they “take it to the house or the garage.”

Rucker, a 33-year-old rookie to the team, and primarily a painter by trade, said poetry slams have “completely changed” his life. Last year, he won a $3,000 Verve grant for spoken word, and this year he won the Minnesota Grand Slam and Erotic Slam.

Morrison, 23, is senior at University of Minnesota and a rapper in two hip-hop bands, the Blend and G8. He said poetry slams are more challenging for him as a performer than rapping “because there’s no backbeat. If you bomb, it can be really intimidating.”

Rucker knows that from experience. The first time he performed in a slam, he forgot his lines.

“I was off book and I was doing really well,” he said. “I was rockin’ the mic and had great timing. Then, I forgot a line. And instead of just skipping ahead or walking off stage, I just stood there for about 45 seconds. Eventually I had to walk off the stage in silence and humiliation.”

“That’s the challenge, that’s the frustration, and that’s the cool thing about slams,” said Cynthia French, the ringleader of this traveling circus of verse. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

French, a 32-year-old pub manager, has been performing in poetry slams for eight years and has organized the SlamMN! team for the past five years. She also coordinated the 2002 National Poetry Slam, held in Minneapolis.

“I’ve done everything at nationals that a person can do,” she said. “Except be an audience member.”

Exacto the Phoenix Commando (real name: Drew Phillips, age 21) rounds out the SlamMN! team. He’s a delivery driver who flunked out of Minnesota State Community and Technical College, but still got an A in jazz band.

Last year, SlamMN! finished in 13th place at the National Poetry Slam in St. Louis. This year’s bouts will be held at various performance venues in Albuquerque, with the finals on Saturday, Aug. 13 in the Kiva Auditorium of the Albuquerque Convention Center.

Morrison said the most important thing about slam poetry is preparing a piece that gets right to the point and engages the audience. That means finding something people can identify with, but at the same time making sure it’s expressed in a unique way.

“You can hear a communal sigh of relief when something works,” he said. “It’s almost like the audience is saying ‘I’m glad somebody said that.’”

It’s that feeling that drives Rucker, too. He said the notion of competitive art may seem strange, but it helps draw in the audience and forces the performers to work harder, to get better at developing their message.

“Everyone is paying attention,” he said of the slam crowds. “If you’ve got a message, you’re going to get heard.”