By Desiree Johnson
Killeen Daily Herald
A t Pugsley's Library in Dallas, the lights were dimmed and a spotlight rested on a stage, highlighting five microphone stands.
The audience was crowded around the stage on plush leather couches and even the employee operating the sound equipment was smoking, taking drags from his cigarette while adjusting speaker volume.
At the Dallas Poetry Slam Invitational, the atmosphere was set.
Poets battling each other in head-to-head competition has a long history. Modern poetry slam is credited to Marc Smith, who added the element of competition to his weekly poetry reading in 1986.
Since then, the idea spread quickly, and now there are more than 100 poetry slam venues in the U.S. alone. In competition, during which anyone can participate, poets are given three minutes to perform an original poem without props, costumes or outside accompaniment.
When the poem is finished, randomly selected judges give the poem and its performer a score between zero and 10. The poets go through three rounds of poetry and scores before a winner is selected based on total scores.
Out of this competition-style poetry has emerged the slam poet, skilled in thought-provoking, entertaining, engaging performances.
The National Poetry Slam Web site describes their performances as "a one-person synthesis of theatre, poetry, stand-up comedy, monologue and performance art."
Topics can range from what a poet ate for breakfast to religion and politics.
Practicing since April, the Killeen Poetry Slam team was the only Texas team invited to compete for the coveted silver bowl of guacamole and a $400 prize.
"It's like the weight of the entire state is on our shoulders," team coach Christopher-Michael said.
As coach, Christopher-Michael has to make quick decisions on whether or not to send up team pieces or individual pieces. If the team chooses to send up an individual to perform in front of the judges, the scores still count toward the team's overall performance.
At the invitational, the team went with a majority of team pieces but walked away with only third place.
Luckily, the invitational was only a warmup. Ahead of them was a week of intense competition at the National Poetry Slam in Austin on Aug. 7-11.
"That's when it really gets serious," said team administrator and slam master John "Crow" Miller.
The National Poetry Slam, held at multiple restaurants, bars and coffee houses in downtown Austin, brought poets internationally to compete over the course of five days for a year's worth of bragging rights. The teams were subject to elimination based on how they performed in their smaller competitions.
The last night, which was hosted by the Paramount Theatre, was a sight to behold, showcasing the best of the best, including the Killeen team. Performing for the first time on a national level, the team was nervous but excited to compete, and the feeling was conveyed in the passionate original poems members performed.
They left victorious, bringing home second place in both the team and individual competition (Christopher-Michael calls himself the "first-place loser" of individual competition).
"I'm so proud of those guys," said Bob "Whoopecat" Stevenson, organizer of the Dallas Invitational and observer of the Killeen team throughout nationals.
Regardless of the titles they brought home, it's apparent that the team members are dedicated to their poetry. Most of the members have produced their own solo albums and in between working day jobs, spend the rest of their time writing and performing at local poetry slams and readings.
It's apparent that their enthusiasm for poetry stems simply from a desire to send a message to audience members.
Amanda "Alley Cat" Scott, a Killeen Poetry Slam member who performed in both Dallas and Austin, explained that a poet's first priority is to convey a message.
"Don't worry about the crowds or other poets' reactions," Scott said. "It's your job to reach someone, and even if you reach one person, you've done your job."
The team has indeed become a testament that, as the National Poetry Slam hosts would say, "anything can happen in three minutes."
Next year, the team hopes to compete in, and win, national as well as other poetry slam competitions. In order to do that, they're working hard to collect donations, since most events are being funded straight from members' pockets.
"Anything helps when you have nothing," Miller said. "This is truly a labor of love." You can catch the team performing at the Wall Street club on Elms Street in Killeen every Tuesday at 8 p.m. To get involved or make donations, e-mail the team at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to check out the online feature on the Killeen Poetry Slam team where you can look at pictures, bios and even hear sound clips of their poems at www.kdhnews.com/multimedia.
Contact Desiree Johnson at email@example.com or call (254) 501-7559