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.
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
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?"
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Hilary: You will stretch
muscles you didn't know you had.
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.
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.
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 …
And serve the poem.
… and let it show you how to stop being four individuals and become one
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?"
Group work can be a tremendous strategic tool in a team bout if you use
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
Three out of four rotations.
… 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.
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.
Like Milli Vanilli.
As the piece grew, it became so much more --
Even bigger than Milli Vanilli.
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.
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
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