Hometown Heroes

The Albuquerque Slam Team

Steven Robert Allen
4 min read
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The children’s eyes shimmer
Even after they realize
the world won’t
— Cuffee

defeat is ugly
and triumph is beautiful
x’s are gone now
— Carlos Contreras

three days of making sure
a nigh of uncertainty
now it is certain
— Hakim Bellamy

We stand on shoulders
of past poets, ancestors
their words echoing
— Kenn Rodriguez

“Best big brothers ever” haiku
I cry ‘cos they do good poetry
not ‘cos they stole my teddy bear
— Esmé Vaandrager

It was the kind of crowd your average rockstar would die for. On Saturday, Aug. 13, the 2,300-seat Kiva Auditorium was packed to capacity. Much of the crowd had drinks in their hands, and they were ready to party. Two giant video monitors had been erected on each side of the stage so spectators in the back of the room could see all the action.

All these spectators had paid good money to watch performance poetry at its finest. Albuquerque had never seen such an event. For the previous three days, poets from all over the continent — as well as one team from France that performed with subtitles beamed across a video screen — had been duking it out for the honor of competing in the 2005 National Poetry Slam finals.

The event was an unbelievable success. Venues throughout Downtown had been packed for the entire competition. This was it, though — the final judgment.

The individual competition led to a dramatic tie between fire-spitter Janean Livingston of Fort Worth, Texas, and geek genius Anis Mojgani of Portland, Ore. Then it was time for the team competition.

Miraculously, the Albuquerque crew had made it into the final four, which is probably one reason why the $20 tickets to that evening’s sold-out event were supposedly being scalped in front of the Convention Center for upwards of $50 a ticket. The locals were excited, but the other three teams to make it into the finals — Hollywood, Calif.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Charlotte, N.C. — had all brought very vocal contingents with them for the contest.

Albuquerque won, and as far as I could tell, they deserved to win, beating out Charlotte by only .6 of a point, making them the first hometown team since 1992 to win the National Poetry Slam. That night, and for several days afterward, Kenn Rodriguez, Cuffee, Hakim Bellamy, Carlos Contreras and 17-year-old Albuquerque High student Esmé Vaandrager basked before the fire of their astonishing achievement. They were overjoyed but hardly surprised by their success.

“We’re really close, good friends,” said Cuffee, “and we had fun working with each other. The talent level on previous Albuquerque teams might have been equal or even higher, but we succeeded because we operated as a family.”

Aside from the team’s obvious chemistry, all five members worked like dogs to win. “It was a bit of a chore sometimes,” said Contreras, pointing out that they rehearsed 14 to 15 hours every week in the months leading up to the competition, “but we had a good time.”

The slam itself seemed to pass in a whirlwind. “It was like one big blur,” said Rodriguez, a veteran of seven previous National Poetry Slams who also served as the team’s coach. “One afternoon, we were watching Aztec dancers perform in Robinson Park, the next we were on stage at the Kiva holding the trophy.”

Bellamy agreed. “I’m still trying to let it catch up,” he said. “The whole thing was surreal. But I can say this now, at least in retrospect, it almost felt just because we worked very, very, very hard.”

One small disappointment was that National Poetry Slam regulations made Vaandrager too young to compete. Thankfully, the team gave her an opportunity to read a poem after the finals at the Kiva, and they all agreed that she played an integral role in their victory. She attended every practice, giving the team constructive feedback on their poetry and performances. Her background in dance, especially, helped them refine their onstage movements. As Contreras said, “We could just hear ourselves; she was there to watch.”

All five team members will remain active in our thriving local poetry community. For them, though, there won’t ever be another summer of 2005. When they recall their victory, they remember more than just the few minutes they spent on stage during the competition. Their memories revolve around all the hard but rewarding training that finally earned them the trophy.

“We practiced every day all summer long,” said Vaandrager. “I miss it.”

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