Poems transform them.
They are teachers, a student, a loan officer. During the day, their voices are neither booming nor fiery, their movements not filled with emotion. But when they start performing, they become the instruments of a poem.
Meet the five members of the D.C.-Baltimore Slam Poetry Team, which is competing through Saturday against about 75 other teams at the National Poetry Slam in Albuquerque.
Started in 1985 by a Chicago construction worker, slam poetry blends verse with performance, drawing from spoken word, punk and, more recently, hip-hop. It uses judges from the audience, encourages newcomers and aims to make poetry accessible and public.
Slam is designed to "take poetry out of the ivory tower," said team member Christian Drake, 23, who lives in the District and teaches at a private high school in Alexandria. "It's a return to poetry as an oral tradition, but in a totally new context."
Slam poetry exploded in the Washington area in the late 1990s, and there are now competitions in the city nearly every night, said Delrica Andrews, 29, the team's coach. Like the city itself, she said, D.C. slam is shaped by a constant influx of people from around the country and abroad.
Shortly before they headed to Albuquerque, Andrews and the rest of the team gathered at the Mocha Hut coffee shop on U Street NW to slam with other local poets.
Drake and Kimberley Zisa, 27, a loan officer from Baltimore, had their pregame smoke. Jon Rechtman, 20, a junior at American University, chugged water and mouthed lyrics. Chris August, 29, a teaching assistant from Baltimore, paced the floor, twirling his beard. Sonya Renee, 28, of the District, who was ranked the best individual poet at last year's national slam and now tours internationally with what her Web site calls "humor, reality and a pinch of big black girl sass," was expected later.
Zisa transfixed the audience with her first piece, a poem on color and race that criticized colorblindness as a social goal.
"The blue nude would be lost on you. Warhol would make even less sense," she thundered, crashing from crescendos to near-whispers that sucked listeners into secret confidences. "Van Gogh's blues, pinks and yellows would dissipate. You'd be left with half an understanding."
Her words were delivered with an Italian accent when she spoke of her Sicilian family. The voice was lofty when she referred to art, blunt when she talked about race.
Next was Drake's piece, a surrealistic journey into the city, seen as a tangled forest, where he imagined the Washington Monument as a redwood, the U.S. Capitol as a white volcano and subways as "dragons sniffing out baobab roots to suckle." He read in a deep, fervent voice, beckoning the audience into his tale, confessing that he is a dreamer, even if "like Los Angeles was not made for earthquakes, D.C. was not made for dreams." The crowd broke into applause.
As Drake finished, August bounded onto the stage, ranting about his trip to the merry-go-round, the only adult amid a group of kids, rediscovering what it's like to be full of life. As he spoke, he spun on the floor, ran in circles, splayed his fingers out like a gecko and cavorted spastically about the stage like a kid trapped in a man's body. By the end, he was panting.
Rechtman, the comic poet with the deadpan wit, was up next, proudly proclaiming that his mother had raised him on three things: applesauce, Cheerios and Aretha Franklin. He went on a whirlwind trip through musical and poetic history in less than three minutes -- "from Homer to Mos Def" -- throwing in snatches of Leonard Bernstein and Michael Jackson that left the audience in stitches.
The team members' styles vary tremendously. They are counting on versatility to carry them through the national competition, which carries a $2,000 top prize. Depending on the audience, they can pull out poetry that is didactic, eloquent, psychotic, hilarious or heart-rending, Rechtman said.
"We're so dynamic, we're almost bipolar," August interjected.
Chosen because of their high scores in local competitions, team members will perform at least six pieces this week, individually or reading with others. Since their selection in May, they've practiced together or participated in slams five times a week.
"You will never take a silent shower again," Drake said wistfully.
The group's members spend a lot of time together outside of the competitions and practices, happily entangled in what they call the intensity, infighting and love of a dysfunctional family. They think of themselves as a sports team training for a trophy.
"This is our Olympics," said Drake.