THE GROUP PIECE: A collaborative essay
written by past Austin Slam Team members focusing on collaborative work.
(published in Poetry Slam: The Art of Competitive Poetry)

The group piece grew out of the whole team concept of national competition. If four people band together to form a team, the thinking went, why not take advantage and allow the poets to collaborate in writing and performance? Since the 1991 Nationals, when the Chicago team presented a group piece in competition, duos, trios, and quartets have become an integral part of numerous teams' poetic arsenals. They have not only become a key facet of many teams' strategies, but have also provided teams with the chance to learn each of its members' voices in a more intimate, creative, and cooperative manner. Since 1995, the Austin team has been one of slam's most steadfast proponents of group work. We present this discussion as a means of highlighting the thrills and dangers of scripting, preparing, and delivering multi-voiced poems.

CONTRIBUTORS: Mike Henry: Member of the '95 and '99 Austin Poetry Slam Teams, Coach for the '96 and '97 Austin Poetry Slam Teams, co-director of the 1998 National Poetry Slam in Austin. Karyna McGlynn: Member of the '98 and '99 Austin Poetry Slam Teams. Danny Solis: Member of the '96 Austin Poetry Slam Team. Has competed in seven Nationals for four different cities, including the '92 Boston and '95 Asheville championship teams. Susan B. Anthony Somers-Willett: Member of the '97 and '98 Austin Poetry Slam Teams. Hilary Thomas: Member of the '96 Austin Poetry Slam Team. Genevieve Van Cleve: Member of the '95, '97, and '98 Austin Poetry Slam Teams. Wammo: Member of the '95, '96, and '97 Austin Poetry Slam Teams, an individual finalist in '95 and '96, and an individual competitor at the '99 Nationals. Phil West: Member of the '95, '96, '97, and '99 Austin Poetry Slam Teams, and co-director of the 1998 Nationals in Austin. Also known as "Pony."

Mike: I remember putting together our first group piece in '95. It was going to be our first Nationals and we had no idea what we were doing.

Phil: Wammo told us it'd be a good idea to have a group piece. It hadn't really occurred to us before. We formed our team, like, three weeks before Nationals.

Mike: We showed up for one of our few rehearsals and Wammo said, "Okay, Pony, you do 'Motor Red' and Mike and I will make car noises and act like we're driving. Gen, you'll smoke, look pissed off and wait for the "asshole" line.  It'll be great."

Phil: Oddly enough, it was. We performed it to 200 or 300 people, a completely packed room, and they went absolutely nuts at the end of the piece.

Mike: It was amazing. We owned that audience . . . slack jawed, eyes as big as plates.

Phil: I'll never forget walking off stage. Cheering, pandemonium, slapping hands with people as we walked across the room . . . it was like we were pro wrestlers exiting the ring. It was one of those total rock star moments that validates you as a performer.

Mike: I thought, "chicks must dig me."

Phil: And then, the next night, we saw Asheville win the finals on the strength of solid group work. They'd scripted Danny Solis's "Every Day" into a quartet that took advantage of each one of their voices. There was such a gorgeous, orchestrated, choral calamity to the piece. Sitting in the audience, I lost it, basically. Hyperventilating, crying . . . it took me to a place no poem had ever been taken me before. At the end of the poem, Gen said . . .

Gen: "Hey, Phil, you want some gum?"

Mike:  Which seemed really fitting at the time.

Phil: I've never even been able to look at gum the same way again.

Mike: So, basically, we were hooked. Since then, group work has been a big part of our lives around here. Gen: Pretty much all hell breaks loose. It's my favorite part of being on a slam team. The beauty part of the whole deal is that people bust their ass to make something bigger or different than themselves.

Susan: I can't rave enough about how enriching collaboration can be. Yes, it's hard, and yes, you have to deal with everybody's ego . . .

Wammo: Usually, I have a few brilliant ideas and then everybody else shuffles along.

Susan: . . . but the product is usually better than anything you could have written alone.

Danny: The variety and richness of the group poem, as it has evolved in the milieu of the slam, is unprecedented.

 Wammo: I haven't seen myself in a group piece since '96 and I think group pieces have suffered terribly as a result.

Phil: When you're trying to get on a team, you're very focused on yourself, competing  to win that coveted spot. The prospect of preparing a group piece, once you make the team, counters that nicely - right away, you get the opportunity to intimately learn the sensibilities of the other people on your team.

Mike: The process can happen in many ways: the entire team writing on agreed-upon topics and melding work together, or looking for existing poems that lend themselves to multiple voices.

Karyna: Group pieces can evolve from retired solo pieces that have long since been abandoned.

Mike: I've even seen cases where two separate poems written by different team members can be married together.

Phil: I'm partial to writing together, the whole ritual -

Mike: Passing a laptop computer back and forth across the table -

Phil: Getting into a rhythm where you're writing in this sort of shared voice -

Mike: And when the piece is finished, it is often difficult to trace back to what single idea or image was the starting point.

Phil: Or to even trace who came up with what. In '97, when we did "Personal Ads," I came up with the original concept, but it was really all of us sitting around Susan's place one night.  One of us would come up with a line, and we'd all riff on that, drawing off of previous experience within the frame of the piece. Like,  Gen had hosted a slam earlier that year where Karyna had done a poem about being a dangerous, sexy Scorpio, and when Gen got back on stage, she said, in this really funny bleating voice, "I'm a Caaaapricorn. All I have to offer you is grass and garbage. Hope you stick around." That  had to go in there.

Gen:  Epic discussions have taken place over the placement of a phrase or an article "We have to use 'or' here, we're comparing to metaphors "  "No, absolutely not, we must use 'and', how can you not understand this?."  We passionately champion the smallest words so that our meaning is clear and the power or beauty or humor in our work is unmistakable. 

Karyna: It's hard to be a team player and give valuable input when you utterly detest the idea for the group piece that's being written, as with "Cherry" in '98. The explicit nature of what I had to write pushed me farther out of my comfort zone than I could have possibly imagined. Susan and Ernie's loss of virginity stories were endearing and humorous, while Gen's and my experiences were painful. When we were about to start free-writing on the subject, I had to make a hard choice: whether to tell the awful truth, or make up something lighter and easier to read in front of audience that may well have included my mother and father.

Gen: There are two important, crucial points in the life of a group piece. The first is the moment in the writing phase of the project where it finally seems like a poem. The second point is during rehearsal. A group piece has a way of being an absolute disaster and a pain in the ass until the magic moment in rehearsal where the group figures out what it's supposed to look like.

Phil: Early on, you're just slogging through, seeing if the piece actually holds together as a poem, but then, you get little breakthroughs.

Mike:  Happy accidents.

Phil:  In "Personal Ads," we had this section where Gen and Wammo say, "Take a chance, call," and Susan follows with a breathy, sexy, "Take a chance, call." In one practice, she was goofing around and did this come-hither facial gesture at the end of the line that we've since come to know as "the lip thing." That's the moment we truly realized we had a funny piece that allowed us a lot of room to play, and not only did the lip thing stay in the piece, it became part of our vernacular. There's photos of us at parties where we're all doing the lip thing.

Gen:  Susan is a wonderful physical comic.  We discovered this in rehearsal.  She didn't even know.

Karyna: When Susan, Gen, and I got together to freewrite on "Daddy" in 1998, it all came out, and almost pieced itself together. After we read the rough draft aloud for the first time, we all just looked around at each other with a few tears in our eyes, nodding, and going, "yeah ... yeah." It just worked. Working with just two other women, I was much more honest.

Susan: The poem seemed to take forever in process, but the result of it was something of which we were extremely proud. The three of us became closer as teammates, and this reflected even more in our performance.

Gen: I believe audiences can sense true collaboration and reward the effort. I think pieces that come from a selfish or uneven collaborative effort look funny - you can hear the direction of one voice leading the others. While these poems may work sometimes, a good audience can sense a fox in the chicken coop.

Danny: In the course of a regular evening of slamming, the audiences see one poet after another. Individual voices, even if they are excellent, are still just individual voices. When a good group poem comes along, it connects with the audience in a way that an individual poem cannot.

Susan: For me, the group piece best exemplifies the benefits of slam poetry over the written word. Not only does a poet get to "embody" his or her work - give the poem a voice, a body, a physical expression - but a group piece gives a poem several different voices.

 Gen: It is a break from the traditional image of the poet - one voice, one body, one microphone.

Danny: A good group piece multiplies voices instead of just adding them.

Susan: With a group, a poet can give a poem a rhythm and pace that is impossible when he or she reads it alone.

Danny: It differs from and indie poem in obvious ways - visually, sonically, verbally - and in ways that are not so tangible. I firmly believe that the process pushes our art forward, farther into the light of realizing its true potential.

Mike: One way to look at it is that instead of one single person for the audience to identify with, laugh with, cry with, there are two or three or four. More for the audience to experience. Like in "Superheroes" by the 1998 Dallas team. That poem would be fantastic performed by any one of the individual voices, but when the audience hooks into the three performers, the universality of the ideas becomes more pronounced. Plus it just fuckin' rocks.

Danny: Everyone likes "Superheroes" because it's funny, but at the same time it is a very serious poem about identity and self-image.

Hilary: The group piece helps bring teams together.

Gen: It binds us, it challenges your creative process and personal boundaries. How can you not care about those that you've given birth with - crafted, doubted, sweated and nurtured with?

Hilary: You must trust your teammates with your baby, your idea, your poem.

Gen: If it is a serious piece that requires the participants to lay themselves bare, you do not take that journey alone. You learn about your co-creators in a profoundly deep and intimate way. If it is a humorous piece, you celebrate and nurture each other and the work.

Mike: One of my favorite elements of group work is that it creates opportunities for poets to work outside of their "comfort zone" - to perform in ways that they wouldn't otherwise.

Hilary: You will stretch muscles you didn't know you had.

Mike:  In rehearsals for "Personal Ads," I had Wammo take Pony outside and teach Pony how to scream "Satan" like a bad glam-metal singer.

Wammo: People were not just looking at us funny, they were fleeing in terror. Mothers were frantically pushing baby carriages into traffic, clutching toddlers to their breasts and yelling for the police.  Jesus, the things we do for poetry.

Mike:  Same year, we had Susan fake a stage slap on Gen to punctuate a particularly violent metaphor.

Phil: I've done a lot of physical work I never would have done on my own. I've been a music box dancer twirling on Danny's outstretched finger. I've buggered Wammo. I've had to stay stoic and focused while Gen pawed me. I've had Karyna lead me into doing this Bob Fosse-esque starburst move with my hands that I never quite mastered.

Karyna: He just ended up looking like a little white dwarf in headlights, frantically waving his arthritic little hands in front of his face, but I think that was all part of what made the piece so funny.

Phil:  Group work has definitely given me the courage to integrate potentially embarrassing physicalizations into my own solo work, and it taught me that, even if it is uncomfortable at first, it's golden if you place it right, as the audience gets to see how far you're willing to go.

Danny: Any poet can memorize a poem for an audience, but it takes a special sensibility to take a good poem and script it in a way that brings more into and out of the poem than would be possible for one voice.

Mike: Some people seem to think that they can just divide up the lines and read the poem. There's more to it than that. You have to look at the text as a map

Danny:  And serve the poem.

Mike:  and let it show you how to stop being four individuals and become one collaborative voice.

Danny: A bad group piece just adds voices to add volume.

Phil: Even the simplest arrangement of four people in a line somehow has to transcend that arrangement, or everyone besides the author becomes extraneous. It's not hard to tell when a team hasn't worked a piece hard enough.

Karyna: In '99, with our four-person group piece, we had to address issues of whether our voices would carry in the space we were going to read in, and whether we would trip over each other's microphone wires while running back and forth. We realized, just before the competition, that hand-holding the mikes was difficult for all of us, and messed up our voice dynamics.

Phil: And rather than risk doing a piece we weren't ready to do, we scrapped it

Susan: It seems that when they aren't done well or when the audience isn't ready for one, they seriously bomb. I think an audience is much more offended by a group espousing bad poetry than just one person, like, "Why did four (or three, or two) people think this was a good idea?"

Mike:  Group work can be a tremendous strategic tool in a team bout if you use it right.

Wammo: Some teams make the mistake of doing too many group pieces at the finals and it's all my fault. Phil: For the '96 finals, we decided to feature our group work as much as possible,

Mike:  Three out of four rotations.

Phil:  because we were so proud of it. The judges weren't ready for it, and they tanked us, even though many poets in the audience were screaming for their heads. We forgot, in our excitement, that the group piece is highly specialized, and requires strong individual work to correctly frame it. Yet a lot of people came up to me after that bout and praised us for taking that risk.

Danny:  There are a million ways to do group pieces that we have yet to discover.

Phil: The '99 duet Mike and I wrote, "Giants," came out of an idea to have a section of a poem where we lip-synched to offstage voices.

Mike:  Like Milli Vanilli.

Phil:  As the piece grew, it became so much more --

Mike:   Even bigger than Milli Vanilli.

Phil:  but that lip-synch section was still the linchpin of the piece, the key pivot point in taking the poem from serious to funny. In "Giants," I got everything I love about slam in one tight package: the conception and execution of a piece that surpassed my wildest hopes for positive audience reception, the fulfillment of the desire to get on stage and perform poetry, and the chance to take the stage with one of my best friends, spurring each other on to give the best performance of our lives.

Gen:  I like it that we come together and care for our words so much.  It makes tremendous sense to me, and frankly it makes me a little weepy and sentimental. 

Danny:  It allows the team a greater variety of options during a bout.  And if community is what the slam is really all about, then a good group piece conceived and executed by a team can be  a microcosmic reflection of a community working in harmony, putting individual egos aside and creating something new that is greater than the sum of its parts.