One evening last week, a group of poets was sitting around an Uptown apartment trying to compose a limerick. Theirs was no mere idle versifying, though. They were, in fact, preparing to represent our great state in the National Poetry Slam, which descends on Minneapolis this week. For practitioners of competitive poetry, this annual blank-verse blitzkrieg is like the Masters and the Triple Crown rolled into one heady, weeklong campaign. Adding to the general pressure of the occasion, no one present seemed to have a precise idea what a limerick was. "It's like do-do-dee-do, right?" ventured Dessa Darling (known on her birth certificate as Maggie Wander), a dark-haired 21-year-old poet who moonlights on weekends as a face painter for children's birthday parties.
As the master of the house, graduate student John Troyer, clacked away on an ancient manual typewriter in the corner, the team set about polishing off a group poem that had been commissioned for performance on a television morning show. Its purpose was to give the uninitiated a glimpse of the slam poet's life. From the piece, an observer culled the following insights: 1) that elite-type competitive poets are unlucky in love; 2) that this misfortune provides a great deal of grist for the poetic imagination; and 3) that these disastrous romantic assignations are punctuated by chronic napping.
"Everyone does a fair number of poems about how their love life is in shambles and how no one likes them anymore," elaborated Shane Hawley, a Winona State University student who also sells guns and ammunition over the phone, and who has attracted the nom de plume "The Little Girl" among his teammates. Hawley recounted his first competitive-poetry experience, at Kieran's Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis, during which he offered to drop a house on an unnamed ex-girlfriend "like the wicked witch." "It was Valentine's Day and everyone was getting really drunk," he said.
"I did this poem about how I hated a girl. Then I did a poem about how I really liked a girl. All these girls were coming up to me and saying they were going to give me 10s. Then I went up onstage and said, 'If anyone wants to go home with me, it's because you're drunk or ugly.' That pretty much assassinated any chance I had.
"There's something intrinsic to poets that makes us unappealing over long periods of time," Hawley mused.
Just then, the team's de facto skipper, Thadra Sheridan, arrived, recently roused from a nap. Sheridan is a veteran of the previous year's state slam team--which missed the finals by a mere point, ultimately placing sixth--and was thus perhaps best qualified to explain the baroque rules of high-stakes flyting to her greener teammates. "I was expecting to go in and be totally awestruck," Sheridan explained. "But going last year, I realized I can totally belong here. My stuff is up to these standards."
Though this year's field is just as crowded--56 teams from 28 states (plus one from Canada)--Sheridan's teammates were similarly uncowed by the competition. "The thing about the National Poetry Slam," Troyer observed, "is that it includes the amazing, the best, and also the less-than-best."
"There's a lot of crap," Hawley clarified.
The Minnesota team was hardly taking victory as a given. They had been rehearsing since May, Sheridan explained, and performing together as often as four times a week at various open-mic nights around the Twin Cities. This evening was to be devoted primarily to refining their individual presentations.
To that end, Darling stood up to recite one of her poems, "Dr. Philosophy," which mixed a lament for a cruel lover with some musing on a rhetorical proof by 18th-century metaphysician George Berkeley. "Tonight the subject of my lecture/much past all debate and conjecture/the topic is miracles, divine intervention/if you've seen Oprah, you've heard of them mentioned/but tonight such discussion will cease and desist/because I can prove that they do not exist." As she spoke, Darling squatted on her heels, and then popped back upright, hands fluttering above her head.
After Darling had finished, she asked her teammates to critique her diction and physical movement. "So I shouldn't pretend to be black when I say 'impossible'?" she queried, on which the general consensus was, no, probably not.
Next in turn came Tim Shea, the team's alternate (each team brings along a backup poet to step in, in the event of injury, or, more likely, emotional breakdown). Shea, a talented and slouchy recent high school graduate who wore a baseball cap cocked over his brow and worked a piece of gum contemplatively around his jaw, arose from the table where for the past hour he had been doodling on a scrap of paper with Crayola markers. "He's our lead-poisoning poster child," someone offered.
When Shea began reading, he stood on the balls of his feet, with eyes half-closed. His voice was loud and clear. "I would massage his back where there are no cuts," he said, drawing an image of a dying boy with words carved into his torso. "Kill him softly," he paused, "like this." The room was silent for what seemed like a long minute. "This is the part where people usually applaud," Darling finally said. And then they did.