Poets Hit the Highway
2003 National Poetry Slam
What do you get when you pile six guys into one loaded-down SUV for a 21-hour drive to Chicago? You get the 2003 Albuquerque Slam Team: Tony Santiago, Kenn Rodriguez, Danny Solis, Jerry Mondragon, Manuel Gonzales (alternate) and Don McIver (coach).
Early Monday, August 4, we piled into our rented Ford Excursion for a straight shot across eastern New Mexico, the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois for the 2003 National Poetry Slam in Chicago. The stopping would be minimal; the driving would be done in shifts with at least two people awake for the long early morning drive across the Texas panhandle.
At dawn, War's "Why Can't We Be Friends?" woke me from my delirium as I recalled the first time I heard that song. It was Clarendon, Texas, the exact spot we just passed on the highway. Somehow my life had come full circle, and though I don't know the significance of that circle, it seemed to shake me, make me open up to Jerry, the driver, about how my life had taken me this far. In turn, Jerry told me about his growing up in northern New Mexico.
In New Mexico, I don't often mention I'm a native Texan. Texas is something Danny and I have in common, though it rarely comes up in conversation. Instead, we find ourselves talking about process, craft and the future of poetry slam. Other than perhaps Marc Smith, the founder of slam, Danny knows more about slam and has a clearer sense of its integrity than any other person I know. For Danny, poetry, and to some extent slam, is a way of life, a calling, a conviction that asks the dark underbelly of America to reveal itself, to take him on. Danny's not afraid to call things as he sees them and as the week progressed the opportunities for him to do that would be plentiful.
At Weeds, Gregorio Gomez welcomed us like we were long lost family, creating a space for us to not only share our poetry but to squeeze in an informal and needed rehearsal. We especially needed to work on the duet of Tony's poem "Ode to Johnny Cash" for the bouts on Wednesday and Thursday. At the end of the night, we all drank a shot of Tequila and piled back into the Excursion (now nicknamed Nessie) for a quick 15-minute drive to Skokie, where we'd be staying for the week.
As coach, I saw my job as making sure everyone was on the same page about when we'd rehearse, what poems to rehearse, getting everyone up and making sure we were fed. Since my girlfriend is from Chicago—in fact we were staying at her parent's house in Skokie—I was also the expert on the train system, the layout of Wicker Park, the driving directions, the locations of the various venues. Ideally, the team would prepare to deliver their poems and I would handle the logistical support.
Nothing is certain in slam, even though you hope that once on stage you will deliver your poems the best you can. The scoring and all the other elements that slam poets too often get worked up over is merely secondary. Nothing is more important than doing the poems your best when you stand up on a National stage.
In the final analysis, that is what Team Albuquerque did, earning a final standing of 40th out of 63 teams. Perhaps with a different set of circumstances we would've scored better. Perhaps. Then again there is always next year in St. Louis—and in Albuquerque in 2005.