War of Words 

Eight slam teams battle it out in this week's New Word Series.

More than a decade has passed since spoken word went from being a literary medium to a Darwinian battle of the fittest. Though its light has abated somewhat — HBO's last Def Poetry Jam aired in early 2007 — the continued predominance of organizations like YouthSpeaks and several Bay Area slam teams (to say nothing of their analogues in other states) shows that the genre's demise is still a long time coming. And even if the hype dies down, the reverberations remain powerful. In the last few years, spoken word has spawned such crossover genres as hip-hop theater, has created smarter rap artists, and made itself palatable to people who don't even like poetry. Not to mention it has turned a form of literature into a blood sport.

"Energy onstage is very important, even if you're doing something quiet or depressing," said Oakland poetry slam coach Nazelah Jameson, who compares herself to a basketball coach. Now in her fourth year of helming the Oakland slam team, Jameson has a relaxed leadership style. She puts a lot of trust in her team (which she can afford, since she only has one rookie), and focuses more on refining their stage performance than tweaking their substantive content. (Flat articulation and fidgety body movements are sticking points for a lot of poets, and can affect a person's score, Jameson said.) Thus, watching the Oakland slam team live is almost like watching the Warriors battle the Utah Jazz. Jameson brings out her most rousing poet (the team's power forward) as an opener, gauges the mood of the room, and comes up with an appropriate plan of attack. Straight guys? Dredge up the sex jokes. Feminists? Do we have cunilingus poems in the repertoire? Room full of drunken hecklers? Right clip 'em with something humorous and ironic, but easy to understand.

To some, this type of sport hardly resembles poetry. Jameson sees herself as the person who sits on the sidelines, calls plays, and knows what's going on in the game. ("I kind of have the objectivity to see what's going on in the whole slam, and what's been scoring really well.") While she sounds more like a coach coming up with strategies than a poet trying to cultivate protégés, Jameson's approach has been fairly successful. This year she led the Oakland slam team to the second round of the national competition. After months of drilling and intense practice, they became agile players. In the poetry realm, they're formidable.

Eight national teams spar at this week's New Word Series, which kicks off Wednesday, Oct. 29, 8 p.m. at the Starry Plough (3101 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley). The final four battle at Club Oasis (135 12th St., Oakland) on Friday, Oct. 30. 8 p.m., $10. MySpace.com/OaklandSlam

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