Sunday, June 15, 2008

Slammin' on a Cheyenne Saturday night

So many things to choose from last night during Cheyenne’s first warm-and-sunny spring weekend. The Ozymandian Theater –"Wyoming’s only improv comedy group" – was on stage at the Atlas downtown conducting a fund-raiser for the historic theatre’s $5 million renovation. The Wyoming Brewers Festival was on tap a block away on the Depot Plaza. At the Civic Center, Hands in Harmony gave a "thank you" concert for all those people and organizations who contributed to a recent emergency fund drive. At the mall multiplex, The Incredible Hulk was getting incredibly angry about something.

Over at the library, we were slammin’. Two performance poets from Denver’s 2006 national champion Poetry Slam team – Ken Arkind and Panama Soweto – took turns on stage with two of Laramie’s finest – Craig Arnold, a poetry professor at the University of Wyoming and winner of the Rome Prize Fellowship in literature, and Luke Stricker, a recent graduate of the UW MFA program and organizer of poetry slams in Laramie.

Saturday's event was part of the Wyoming Humanities Council’s summer program paying tribute to the beatniks. This was the final stop on a Wyoming mini-tour that included Casper, Lusk and Cheyenne.

Arkind and Soweto have been performing together for several years. Arkind’s a skinny long-haired white guy who wears John Lennon specs. Soweto’s a lanky black guy with a buzz cut who wore a "Where the Wild Things Are" T-shirt. The two perform as a duo (bought their CD, "The Dynamic Duo") and separately. The evening really caught fire when they launched into their performance piece "Uhuru," which they’ve performed at Red Rocks and on Denver radio. They warned the 30-some audience members that this was the "political part of their program." "Stand up," was the refrain. By the end of the piece, they had us all standing up. "Uhuru!"

I kept wondering: "How did this one go down in Lusk?"

Arkind and Soweto describe themselves as nerds, guys who spent their youth not getting dates but playing endless rounds of video games. Arkind had a poem, "Life is Like Mario Brothers," which received big cheers from the teens and twenty-somethings. I made a note to buy this CD for my 23-year-old nerdy son, who still stays up late playing the games he grew up on – and some new ones, too.

The duo performed together on another gamer piece. It’s possible our generation misjudged all of our pimply-faced gamers who spent too much time in the basement in front of the TV console. These guys are fine performers. Nerds gone public. What caused them to jump from their musty confines of youth and jump onto stage. Politics? Maturity? Love of the spoken word? Maybe all of those things. My son, Kevin, also loves the stage. Last year, he and his girlfriend were in the Euripides’ play, "Electra." Maybe it was the role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons that bit them with the performing bug.

After the talented people performed, the rest of us were enlisted in a "haiku slam." We were challenged to write haiku based on a random idea shouted from the audience. You’ve seen this done in improv on "Whose Line is It, Anyway." The five competitors (including me, representing the AARP set) had five minutes to write a poem. Five judges gave us scores, as we were vying for some very exciting prizes that Craig Arnold found at garage sales and in his basement.

First haiku theme was "wood." I scored pretty low on that one. Next was "the circus." I immediately got an image of George Bush, so I had to run with it. Here’s my haiku:

George Bush, ringmaster
sticks head into lion’s mouth;
we cheer the lion

I received a 10 from one judge, nine-point-somethings from three others. A guy my age named Chris said, "I can tell I’m in a room with a bunch of Libs." He gave me a 1. Fortunately, the emcee drops the high and the low scores for the final tally. At the end of the second round, I was in the lead.

We all were challenged by the final round’s topic: "Arnold Schwarzenegger." Sara creates a scene in which "tiny Maria" faces sex with Arnold in the missionary position. Wild cheers erupt – and a perfect 10. Amanda and Xon and Colin all get good scores. And, finally, it’s up to me. I try it with an Americanized Austrian accent:

Ah-nold Schwarz-en-eg
ger, too many syllables
for such a small man

That clinched it. I claimed my first prize of a plastic horse with a Farah Fawcett mane. Also a collection of work by the Nuyorican Poets Café. Amanda said she really wanted the horse so I traded that for a 1970 manual on sandal making. Not a bad haul for a prose writer. I’ve judged a lot of slams and this was the first time I’d entered one. It was a strange sort of slam, more improv than the standard variety of writing and memorizing and performing your own poems.

That said, I shall treasure my prizes.

To view a performance by Ken Arkind, go to


kainah said...

Congrats, Mike!

I love the circus poem. Cheering the lion, indeed!

mpage225 said...

Very nice, Mike, but I don't remember you reciting any haiku's back in Gainesville. I hope perhaps this fall to be able to view your prize and hear the winning haiku live and in person.

mpage225 said...

and by the way, Mike, though I really, really, like your haiku, that one about Arnold and Maria and sex, um, how does that one go?

Michael Shay said...

Bob: Didn't get a chance to memorize the the salacious lyrics of the Arnold/Maria haiku. Perhaps, if you're coming out West one day soon, I can scare up the author for an instant reply.