Individuality vs. Versatility: WoWPS Post 3 (roll the dice to check your stamina)

8 May

Recently, on Rik’s recommendation, I started watching Bleach, an anime series I’d seen around but hadn’t tried out. I’m about halfway through the series now, and y’know, it’s good. The episodes are a little more formulaic than I typically enjoy, but the devotion to long-term character development, satisfying plot twists, and overall badassery makes this a series worth watching, IMHO (if you want to watch, it’s on Hulu, and broken up into parts on YouTube. Just remember to skip the shitty theme songs at the beginning and end).

I tend to prefer anime that involves some kind of regular dueling action (swordplay, gunplay, supernatural powers, &c.). It’s fun and exciting, even when you know who’s going to win. I love the insane creativity that goes into the making of these alternate universes. Along with compelling RTV shows like Top Chef, Project Runway or The Biggest Loser, I find the anime I watch to be a great motivating tool for competition. Characters are constantly saying things like, “I’ll do my best!” or “I won’t lose!”, whether they be doe-eyed neophytes or virtual demigods.

Gonna spoil here, just a little. Bleach features a class of warriors known as Soul Reapers. Each Soul Reaper who attains a certain mastery of his/her (usually his, though there is one truly admirable woman thus far) technique has markedly different powers; these powers are halfway drawn from the spirit-inhabited swords they carry. Sort of like the patroni drawn from wands a la Harry Potter, only MUCH more dope. Kind of like each Dog of the State drawing on a different element a la Fullmetal Alchemist. Or just the old school notion of different martial artists practicing different fighting styles.

For me, maybe the coolest thing about making it to Finals was feeling I was meeting eleven other incredible warriors in battle. And dude, I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s pretty fucken extra awesome to me being in a room full of warriors with vaginas. I’d seen or sparred with all these women before, so I knew each had something really special going on, her own power, her own fighting style. And Finals was a different kind of arena than I’d ever battled in before. The previous night’s prelims at the tight, packed Writing Wrongs venue felt, before it even began, like a street fight waiting to happen, where the women who won would have to grapple, get bloody-knuckled and sweat; WoWPS Finals felt as close to the Coliseum as I’ve ever come. Neat-o!

Yeah, I respected and continue to respect all of my competitors in the context of the game. Fond as we are of saying slam is random, the random draw, ranking system, and double preliminaries make it kind of hard to ascend to finals on an absolute fluke. And okay, say Ms. Wise, Tristan, Hannah, Megan or I, or any Finals first-timer, makes it on a fluke. That doesn’t explain why most of the pack stays veteran: Sierra, Dee, Chauncey, Eboni, Nicole, Nitche, and Gypsee Yo have all done it before. On the adverse tip, I remember someone bemoaning the lack of new blood to challenge the seemingly eternal champions of slam, but I don’t see it that way at all. I think a lot of folks, once they “get” their own styles and “get” the way the game is played, are more likely to reach that level again and again, if they stay wanting it (few stay wanting it). But every Finals I see new warriors in the arena, and often enough it’s those new warriors who win the day. Amy winning iWPS last year is a great example of that, and so are three of the four top teams at last year’s Nationals (because no one thought ABQ would come back, right? or that SF and St. Paul could bring some serious shit? but Nuyo does make it pretty much every year).

I would not filthy my presently veryshiny brain with trying to imply who the Best Slam Poets are; I’m not suggesting any given Finals necessarily showcases the best motherfuckin artists in the known universe, just a sliver of the slam poets who have enough mastery of their own personal styles and mastery of the nature of the competition to score the best, given the proper circumstances. I killed in prelims at WoW using a poem that totally bombed in prelims at iWPS only a few months before (Did I get five 10s? Yeeaahhh. That has never ever happened to me before, or since, with any poem, in the four years I’ve been slamming. Still think it’s a dream).

Which brings us back to Bleach. When characters are confronted with a really dope hero or villain, Bleach uses a phrase I’ve seen in other anime series: “He’s so strong!”, but even more fun, sometimes characters say, “That…that spiritual pressure!”, which is Bleach‘s way of implying someone’s really powerful, in the zone, or on fire. What reliably puts someone in her spiritual firepower zone? Desperately wanting to win, needing to share the poems she’s brought, reading the venue and the crowd and the night well, and having practiced to the point where the odds that she’ll drop a line or fuck up her delivery are slim.

Different venues and different nights matter enormously, in the same sense that battling on one kind of terrain plays to some fighters’ advantage. If, say, Jeanann Verlee were battling Tony Jackson, on most nights I’d be inclined to give Jeanann the advantage in NYC, and Tony the advantage in Austin, because they’re both incredibly savvy writers and performers, but familiar turf matters very much.

When you’re on the road, you have to learn to adapt very quickly to different crowds and venues. Sometimes you’re more successful, sometimes you disappoint yourself, but you do better the more you get out there. Touring can definitely be an advantage in competition. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at least eight of the twelve of us up there had done some touring previous to that night – and the high representation of women who have 2+ venues to work with on a regular basis, from NYC to ATL to DEN, speaks even more to that point.

So I’d definitely say versatility is one of the lotus/cherry blossom petals (I’ve been watching anime for days) of slam winningness. This is the idea (that I heard from The Fugees first, righteous) that one should “practice many styles” or, as we say in slam, “have deep pockets” – think of Sonya Renee going from a fist-pumping anthem on a woman’s right to choose to an insanely funny adventure with a manmade cheese product. Being able to speak to different crowds – the difference between the set I choose to perform at Van Slam or Java Monkey. Knowing how best to utilize a space – Jared Paul standing on a chair at a strong focal point in the venue to command the crowd’s attention. Adaptability is key.

But even more important, I think, is having a keen sense of oneself. I’ve seen a lot of poets who have one really developed style do very well in slam – folks who just do that one thing really fucking well, and no one else does it quite like they do. If you can’t beat someone who only does one thing, maybe you need to do your thing better. Or just not slam: that’s cool too.

As far as strategy goes, I’d definitely rather try to flip or transform the trends the poets before me have set than try to beat them by following in their footsteps. They’re likely doing what they do best, which probably isn’t the same thing you do best – and even if it’s something you do better, as long as the poet who precedes you reps okay, you need to smash that representation to smithereens to make that moment really worthwhile for you and for the audience.

If you think about it, slam is just like Bleach: having a strong sense of self and a strong understanding of the weapons one carries (even given mastery of only one technique) affords a person a definite edge in battle. I felt like bowing to my eleven opponents before we’d even begun, because I knew they’d all mastered styles that I hadn’t.

So for a minute, at the beginning, it felt pretty great to have the hodgepodge of us tradeswomen or masters crowded into that little Green Room backstage, waiting for the show to begin. Then we did the draw for the first round order, and that was the moment my chest suddenly felt three sizes too small for all the suddenly rowdy fucken organs within.

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