Last year, Damien Flores and the rest of UNM's slam poetry team had to brave freezing temperatures and perpetual snowfall at the 2007 College National Poetry Slam in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
So they put in a bid to bring this year's championship to Burque.
"We knew it would be a monumentally better experience," Flores says. "The weather is much nicer this time of year than in other parts of the country, and we wanted the chance to show people how great our city is."
The Association of College Unions International accepted their bid, granting the UNM slam team its wish. More than 100 college slam poets from 24 schools across the country are descending upon the Duke City this week, looking to showcase their chops and compete for the national title. "The talent level of these writers and performers is very high," Flores asserts. "People can get a taste of poetry from different regions of the country, and I think they'll be surprised by the diversity of the performers in the slam."
After winning the College National Poetry Slam in 2006 and placing second last year, UNM team member Aaron Cuffee is cautiously optimistic about his team's chances to take the national crown again. "We like to think we're just as talented and capable as anyone we see," Cuffee says. "We're going up against the best, and that's the situation we want to be in."
Flores says that while some slam poets are comfortable going on stage and improvising a poem on the spot, most have to spend months writing, editing and practicing their pieces before they’re sharp enough to stand up to the competition. The UNM squad has been practicing every week since February, putting together group poems and working out the nuances in their performance. "I think some people might not understand the preperation involved in slam poetry," Flores says. "There's a lot of memorizing and working out the kinks that happens before we go on stage."
In past years, poets have been cooped up in student union buildings or in their hotels during national competitions, with little opportunity to explore the host cities. Flores and his fellow organizers wanted to change that by adding a couple of choice venues for this year's event. The preliminary rounds will take place at the UNM Student Union Building, while the National Hispanic Cultural Center and El Rey Theater will host the semi-finals and finals, respectively.
"We wanted to give the poets a taste of the diversity in Albuquerque," Flores explains. "They'll see the campus, but we wanted to show them Barelas, Downtown and Nob Hill as well."
Event organizers were also able to convince multimedia and bilingual performance group Verbobala to perform at the finals. The group uses slam poetry, underground hip-hop, electro-acoustic music and video in their high-energy performances. Verbobala, based out of Cuernavaca, Mexico, and Tucson, Ariz., will add an extra element of multiculturalism to the contest, Flores says. "I don't think many people will have seen anything like them before."
Although he's excited to compete with other college teams who are some of the nation's best, Cuffee says the competition element of the event isn't the most important part. "We're very interested in winning and we consider it our job to do so, but in essence, the competition is just an excuse to get people to listen to poetry," Cuffee says. "The most important thing is meeting, becoming friends with and learning from other poets and getting more people interested in slam poetry."
The first rounds of the College National Poetry Slam take place on Wednesday and Thursday, April 2 and 3, at the UNM SUB at 3 and 5 p.m. The National Hispanic Cultural Center (1701 Fourth Street SW) will host the semifinals on Friday, April 4, at 6 and 8 p.m. The finals at El Rey Theater (620 Central SW) start at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 5. Admission for the first two rounds is free and tickets for the finals are $10 general admission and $7 for students with I.D. at El Rey’s box office on the day of the show.