Poets Gear Up for Slam Nationals

slam news logoIt”s coming down to the wire for the several hundred poets across the nation who are gearing up for next week”s National Poetry Slam Finals in Austin, Texas. In Richmond, poets gathered at ComedySportz Improv Theater for a practice slam Sunday night. On Monday night in Kalamazoo (yes, Kalamazoo!), the Kalamazoo Slam Team hosted a special show to raise money for their trip to Austin and debuted their new team CD. Pacific Northwest poets gathered at the Cafe Deux Soleil the same night for the annual Salmon Slam, where Seattle, Vancouver, Bellingham and Eugene, Oregon competed in a self-styled regional slam for bragging rights to Best of the Northwest. And in the Northeast, there have been multiple practice bouts and regional competitions, including last Wedensday night”s Big East at the Cantab Lounge in Boston (Boston”s Lizard Lounge team took the honors) and the North Beast Regional Slam at the AS220 in Providence, RI last night (with the Cantab Lounge waltzing off with bragging rights).

AS220 is not my usual Providence poetry haunt, but the chance to see five local teams going head to head was too good to pass up. The Providence Slam hosted the event at the downtown performance space that has been home to Providence Slam for over a dozen years. Teams traveled from Boston (two teams, one from the Cantab Lounge and one from the Lizard Lounge), Worcester (the Poetry Asylum), Portland, ME and Hartford Connecticutt to face each other in two rounds of bouts and a final face-off. The Providence and Connecticutt Youth slam teams also represented – and represented very very well.

The co-hosts for the evening, Sage Francis, Tom Inhaler and Jared Paul, kept the crowd humming and energized, but it was hardly necessary. The room rocked with a standing room only crowd who energetically applauded, encouraged and even joined in with the poets on more familiar pieces. This is slam at its happening best – high-energy, fast-paced, emotion-packed – where the keen edge of competition adds a spicy edge to the art. This is an audience in love with its performers, not afraid to shout back at them , hug them when they bolt offstage, high-fiving them all the way back to their seats. This is poetry as a performing art and audience participation sport. What I saw at the North Beast Regionals last night was what Marc Smith must have envisioned when he hosted the first-ever poetry slam at the Green Mill in Chicago – an audience so thoroughly involved with the work being presented that they were moved to cheers, jeers (to the judges) and tears, all in the space of a three minute poem – with no props and, to quote nationally known slam-master Bill MacMillan, NO DANCING HIPPOS.

The festivities got started at the fashionably late poet”s time – 8:30, half an hour after the announced start of the night – but no one seemed to mind in the least. Five judges randomly chosen from the audience sat at tables near the front as individual members of each team stepped up to slam their finest for their teams. Connecticutt and Providence each sent their Youth Slam representatives – who more than held their own against established, older poets from Worcester, two Boston Venues and Portland. The night started off with the expected political and social pieces, slammed hard and hard-hitting – three in a row. The audience, egged on by Sage Francis as MC for the first bout, loudly jeered any low scores and wildly applauded the poets. The poets” performances were punctuated by floor-thumping and shouts of “yes!” as each made telling points or sparked agreement. Worcester”s Jon Wolf broke the trend and flipped the room with a rousing letter to his best friend”s jealous boyfriend… and from there on out, the poetry was a roller-coaster ride of emotion, playing on politics, feminism, love, hate, breaking up, growing old and the horror of what happened to a cactus plant at Walmart.

Worcester knocked the home team out of the running in the first bout, but the Providence poets stayed to cheer and encourage throughout the night. In the second bout of the evening, Boston”s Cantab team took the honors to go up against Worcester in a flat out head to head heat for the finals, where they took the honors of North Beast Regional Slam Champs. All along the way, there were memorable moments – and memorable poems. Listing the standouts is impossible – they all stood out, the best of the Northeast gathered in one room. Adam Stone, Simone Beaubien, Jon Wolf, Erin Jackson, Gary Hoare, Jared Paul, Urban, 1two5 – I know I”m leaving out poets whose names didn”t stick, but whose words did.

If you”re anywhere near Austin, Texas next week, that”s where you need to be. From the 9th through the 14th, over 300 poets from 80 different venues around – and outside – the country will be competing in eight different venues for the National Slam Championship. Besides the slam bouts, the Austin slam community has put together a full roster of poet happenings around the city. Slam has a reptuation of being loud, of cheapening poetry with competition, of fostering bitter rivalries and disputes. Slam has also fostered some of the most emotional and moving poetry being written in today”s world. If you can, be there to see it happen. There”s nothing else like it in this world.

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