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Off to Austin 

The Tucson National Poetry Slam Team and friends perform to raise funds

Pity the poet: Appreciated by few. Scorned by some. Ignored by many. Tortured. Solitary.

But now that's changing. At least you can scratch the word "solitary."

Oh, the torture, scorn and limited appreciation remain, especially for slam poets, those brave souls who get up on a stage and compete for audience approval and, in their dreams, valuable cash prizes. These days, however, slam poetry is becoming a team sport, and Tucson is sending its first-ever team to the National Poetry Slam next month in Austin, Texas.

Traveling to the National Slam, of course, requires money. These are poets we're talking about, so money is a problem. Or it would have been, had the local team not had the bright idea to raise funds this weekend with a three-hour event offering poetry, music and a collaboration between a border poet, a Mexico City video jockey and Tucson alternative-entertainment troupe Flam Chen.

The event is called "Smells Like Tigers," a phrase with a complicated origin and evolution within the local slam team; it has come to mean "You're so sexy." At least that's the story from team member Teresa Driver, the acting (meaning unpaid) director of the Tucson Poetry Festival.

"'Smells Like Tigers' sounds strange and different," she says, "and that on a flier ought to catch someone's eye and lend itself to the circus atmosphere we're trying to create."

It's a good thing Driver won a spot on the team, because she's the one who was initially determined to take a group of collaborative slammers to Austin.

It all started when she attended the 2005 National Poetry Slam in Albuquerque, N.M., on her own. "I had such an amazing time, but I was lonely, because I didn't know anybody," she says. "Everybody was walking around in groups of four or five with a fan club trailing after them. It was a six-day event, with preliminary bouts, semifinals and finals, and workshops all day long, readings, showcases, a rookie slam--it was overwhelming. There was poetry going on in the streets at 4 o'clock in the morning, nonstop.

"I was so inspired by all the different voices that I fell asleep every night writing in my journal; I stained the mattress with ink. My No. 1 goal when I got back to Tucson was to go back with a group of people I knew."

A month after she got home, Driver met Lindsay Miller (who is also on the Tucson National Slam Team, along with Kelly Lewis) and Maya Asher, who together founded what is now called the Ocotillo Poetry Slam. It takes place on the fourth (and sometimes second) Saturday of the month at Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea, 1730 E. Speedway Blvd.

Poetry slams developed in the 1980s, but if you're still not sure what they are, here's the Ocotillo Poetry Slam's official description: "Slam is a competitive, performance-based, audience-judged, interactive poetry reading. Poets compete with their own original work in a series of three rounds, and the lowest-scoring poets are eliminated at the end of each round. The last poet standing wins fame, glory, the love and admiration of the audience, the right to host the next month's slam, $50, and the coveted crown of laurel leaves." Note that the money is awarded only during the school year; now that it's summer, winners get not only bragging rights, plus the laurel crown, which is probably uncomfortable and offers no protection from the sun.

Team Tucson was assembled through competition at an April 28 slam. Ten poets were vying for the honor; five were selected, but two won't be able to make the trip to Texas. "Life stuff got in the way for them; it's a big commitment to practice three times a week and fund our own travel or put together a fundraiser," Driver notes sympathetically.

Of course, these were all solo slammers, and although they'd appeared at least twice during the season's slams, they didn't know what to expect as team members. "We were really worried about working together, because you can end up with a team of people who hate each other, but everyone got along incredibly well," Driver says.

Which is not to say that they have identical aesthetics. The two dropouts, according to Driver, worked in a hip-hop style, employing rhyming lines that stick firmly to a beat, and she's sorry that Team Tucson is losing that particular spice.

On the plus side, Team Tucson is now all female, which sets the group apart from many other slam competitors. "Most slam poets and rap artists are men," says Driver. "At least in Arizona, for every four guys, there's one girl. Slam has been a boys' game, and we're definitely changing that here."

If you can't quite grok how a team slam works, you'll find out at the July 21 fundraiser. Team Tucson will perform a set, as will solo poet Jewel Blackfeather. There will be music from the bands One Eye Open (says the publicity, "Imagine a supergroup consisting of Heart, Jethro Tull and Nirvana") and the rock-folk fusion group Crossing Sarnoff. Veteran Arizona slam poet Aaron Johnson will be the host, and he will no doubt strut his stuff. The grand finale is Verbobala Spoken Video, a cross-border multimedia collaboration featuring Logan Phillips, Flam Chen (this time not working with fire), Adam Cooper-Terán and Moisés Regla.

Driver cautions that poetry slams tend to have adult themes and language. "This is an all-ages show," she says, "but parental guidance is suggested."

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