For the first time, St. Paul’s Soapboxing Poetry Slam Team are National Slam Poetry Champions. “It’s all a blur. It’s just slowly setting in,” says Sierra Demulder, one of the four members of the victorious team.
Demulder was joined last week at the championship venue in Florida by Kyle “Guante” Myhre, Khary “6 is 9” Jackson, and Michael Mlekoday, as well as alternate and time-scorer Jenn Parks and coach/SlamMaster Matthew Rucker. These poets earned the right to represent St. Paul by scoring the highest overall through the eight-month Soapboxing slam series, held monthly at the Artists’ Quarter. While these four poets are not new to nationals, having made it to the semi-finals the last two years, this year was the first time the team felt they had the confidence to take it all.
“We were ready to win,” Demulder says. “We took each of our bouts because we each had enough individual poems to overcome any team. We’ve grown as people, we’ve grown as poets, and this year we were ready to do this.”
Held in West Palm Beach from August 4-8, the event comprised 68 teams from around the world. And while they never actually lost a bout over the course of the four day tournament, and were only behind after individual poems a handful of times, the team’s path to the championship was not easy, as they had to face a number of high-profile and revered teams from places as far-flung as Arkansas, Oakland, Albuquerque, New York, and Charlotte.
In the very first round, the team faced New York Urbana, the only team to win three National titles and coached by the legendary Taylor Mali, as well as teams from Tucson and Charlotte. This victory, one of the closest of the entire tournament, was especially meaningful for the team members. “That .3 win is the one that really feels good to me,” says Mlekoday.
In the second round, they faced teams from Austin, Washington D.C., and Fayateville, Arkansas. That victory took them to the semi-finals, where they again faced New York Urbana, as well as teams from Oakland, Orlando, and a different team from Austin. It was here that both Jackson and Demulder achieved rare perfect scores of 30. Jackson received his on a relatively unperformed persona poem entitled “Carolina,” while Demulder achieved perfection with her piece “Mrs. Dahmer,” an impressionistic and gut-wrenching retelling of Jeffrey Dahmer’s life through the eyes and body of his mother. (Sam Cook, a member of the Minneapolis team, also scored a 30 on his poem “KGB,” a passionate ode to a friend who committed suicide.)
With these two scores, St. Paul’s place in the finals was assured. There they faced teams that were no strangers to the finals stage—Albuquerque, champions in 2005; San Francisco, champions in 1999; and the NuYorican Poets, who have been in the Finals a record 11 times. Even before the bout was finished, however, it was almost mathematically assured that St. Paul would emerge as champions, with their competitors needing two perfect scores in a row to pass them.
“We knew by the end of the third round, we got this, it’s ours,” says Rucker.
For Demulder, such a dominant overall performance “showed that we definitely deserved to make it to semi-finals, to finals, and to take the win.” What makes this achievement all the more remarkable is that the team decided to not perform any group pieces, a mainstay of slam poetry finals, with teams demonstrating choreographed skill in having multiple voices within a given poem. Rather, the team relied on their individual talents and preparation to carry them to the title.
“We can do it next year,” Jackson adds mischievously.
Such a focus on individuals, though, shouldn’t distract from the team’s cohesiveness, or the cohesiveness of the scene from which they emerged. The presence of the St. Paul and Minneapolis teams—the latter comprising Sam Cook, Heather Poliseno, Dylan Garity, and Michael Schafer—reflected the close bonds of the Twin Cities spoken word scene.
“I think it really showed onstage and off what a strong community the Twin Cities has,” Demulder says. “We were at every Minneapolis bout we could make, and they came to ours.” In fact, both Mlekoday and Jackson counted moments spent supporting Minneapolis as some of their favorite times of the tournament.
“My biggest hope,” Guante says, “is that our victory helps nurture the spoken-word scene here in the Twin Cities. Now that it’s obvious we have one of the top scenes in the country, I hope more people are excited about becoming a part of that scene.”
While the majority of the team members are originally from different parts of the country—Myhre from Madison, Jackson from Detroit, and Demulder from upstate New York, leaving Mlekoday as the sole native Minnesotan—they have all come together to form a group unlike any Rucker has experienced.
“I’d never seen a team with this much cohesion, this much love. It just builds and builds into this beautiful combination of things that made this team victorious over any other,” Rucker says. Over the course of the tournament, he says, “I would just stop in my tracks and realize how blessed I am to have a team like this.”
“I still think we have room to grow,” Demulder says, “but only upwards.”
The victorious team with their trophy. Photo courtesy Sierra Demulder.
Justin Schell (email@example.com) is a freelance writer and grad student in Minneapolis, working on a book and documentary about immigrant, refugee, and diasporic hip-hop here in the Twin Cities. For more on the project, see 612to651.com.
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