Detroit slams for national respect

You are Blair. You are Becky Austin. You are Michael Ellison. You are Ben Jones.

You are all first-time “slam poets,” teammates representing Detroit/Hamtramck in the 2002 National Poetry Slam. Though you have never competed in Slam, you know the stories.

You, Becky, had a boyfriend who competed on the 2001 Slam team. You, Michael and Ben, have a friend, this writer, who was a member of the 1999 Slam team, along with two of your coaches, Aurora Harris and Ella Singer. A third coach, Scott Klein, is a Slam veteran and a tactical battering ram, with attitude to match. Blair, you lead the Urban Folk Collective and have had to fight for your respect as a Detroit musician and artist. You’ve earned that, but the world doesn’t know your poetry. The world doesn’t know any of you. Yet.

What do you know about the Slam experience? You’ve heard about it. You know the rules. Your team has to win four “bouts” to be proclaimed champion. Each team member gets three minutes to perform their best stuff. It’s gotta be original. You can’t use props. This is just you, the words you write and your ability to convey them. You’re scored on a scale of one to 10, and members of the audience are the judges. You’re going to Minneapolis for this year’s Slam. Your competition is 55 four-member teams, 220 poets and you, representing almost all 50 states. Plus a few Europeans.

The world doesn’t know Slam like it should, but it knows its offspring. It knows Saul Williams. jessica Care moore. Taylor Mali. Regie Gibson. Patricia Smith. And you, Detroit/Hamtramck, are beginning to feel the pressure. After all, you carry the torch for the Detroit Slam veterans — your forebears — who have come close to winning, but fell short. And they are all watching you — Aurora, Sonya, Vivee, the late Pat Kearney. Many word warriors, seven years of struggle, dating back to 1995. It’s not fair, because this is your first time.

But, Mike, your attitude is right. It’s not your first time. You don’t know these Taylors and Sekous, but they don’t know you. And your team substitutes fire for saliva. Blair, they have never heard a black man perform an Italian madrigal. Becky, they have never seen a white woman stand in concert with three black men in such ballsy defiance of the world’s stereotypes. And Ben, they don’t know east side logic. You know what I mean, the logic that says if they don’t know you, they don’t know warfare. Verbal or otherwise.

You’ve prepared for this. In preparation, you’ve doubled your forebears’ level of intensity. Four-hour practices become eight. Coaching sessions become writing workshops. Doubt becomes the devil. Your worldview becomes tunnel vision.

You finally make an unprecedented decision. You unanimously agree to let your coaches select your poems for you in each bout. You establish complete trust in them.

The day you leave, your forebears are smiling. They know that Detroit has finally assembled a team they’re not ready for. That’s why other teams excuse you when you win your first bout by a wide margin. The next night, you set a record for the largest margin of victory ever in a Slam bout. This time, they say your competition must be easy — or maybe the judges are planted. Screw them. You’re in the semifinals.

Then you scare them. You beat the San Francisco team, Detroit’s nemesis which won by two-tenths of a point in ’99. You beat the hell out of them. Their coach tells Scott Klein that Detroit has to win because they can’t lose to a team that doesn’t go on to become champion. You shrug and play it humble. Becky, you kept telling people you’re just happy to be here. Ben, you play the role of neophyte, and feint starry eyes. Blair, you have just left a crowd of people crying after performing the madrigal. Mike, you’ve got guns in your eyes. And you’re looking toward the finals, because you all just became the first Detroit team to make it there. And no one seems to know the outcome but you.

On finals night, 3,000 people pack the Orpheum Theater. They’re here for poetry. And they are buzzing about this team from Detroit. They’ve heard you spit fire. This is what you’ve waiting for. Your opponents are from New York, Urbana, Seattle and California. They’ve been here before. Taylor Mali, a one-time champion, is still brushing you off. But you see through that. He’s gonna get to know warfare, Ben.

How fierce bards can be. Slam, at the end, is a convention of artists who usually end up on the same team. But in the thick of these bouts, poetry becomes mettle, and mettle is tested to the extreme. As always, you gather among yourselves and give thanks to the forebears.

Then you go on stage and breathe, and fire sears the ears of the audience. You and New York go metaphor for metaphor, line for line, pushing the limits of iambic pentameter and dancing in rhythm. At the end, you are tied. They perform a team piece mixing human beat-box sounds with poetry. The beat boxes overpowered the poet, and few could hear her words. They are rewarded for ingenuity. But they are spent. They have nothing left. You are just getting started.

In the tradition of Slam, both teams are offered the chance to engage in a tiebreaker. One poet from each team will go onstage. Either that or you can call it a draw. You all say go for it. Only one New York team member wishes for it. The issue is deadened, and a tie is called. You are co-champions, but the rumblings throughout the theater favor you.

The first-timers. The fire-spitters. The champions.

You come home and tell everyone who made it possible. You tell them that Aurora and Vivee set the literary standard. You tell them that Khary redefined performance. You tell them that Scott instilled discipline and Ella gave you consistency. You lift up the names of others — Pouncy, McCree, West. And we are grateful, and more than happy to have you in our company. But this is your title, and we thank you for finally making the country take notice that Detroit does not write in ink.

We write in fire.

Khary Kimani Turner shares his poet’s soul in Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]