Poetry slams use emotion, reflection to reach an audience

By Bessie King

A man stands under the dim lights, reading a poem reminiscent of a day spent with a woman in Pakistan watching the sun set.

His name is Aamir, and he is one of several poets mixing original compositions with reflective delivery in a form of expression called “slam poetry.” The Cantab Lounge in Cambridge has hosted poetry slams every Wednesday for 15 years.

“People come back because of the atmosphere and the experience; everyone is invited to try the open mic and folks who think they don’t like poetry or slams are surprised to know how many different styles there are and can be enjoyed,” said Simone Beaubien, Cantab Lounge “slam master” and organizer of the poetry slam nights.

The fast-paced poetry competitions are judged by audience members, Beaubien said.

While Cambridge is the premire place to listen to poetry slams for locals, they originated in Chicago’s Green Mill in the late 1980s, and since have expanded across the country. Poetry slams now have rules stating poems must be original works of three minutes or less and without props, costumes or musical accompaniment during delivery.

Beaubien said anyone can sign up to recite their poetry, and after about eight open slams, the winners from each week participate in two semi-finals. The two semi-final winners move on to a final for the season championship. Winners from these championships are then invited to join the Cantab’s poetry slam team to compete in the annual National Poetry Slam in Austin, Texas.

Poetry slam nights typically draw an audience of more than 70 people every week, said Judy Griffin, a Cantab Lounge bartender. The participating artists come from many different places, she said.

“These are serious poets – there are national poetry slams and other contests too, so it’s really nice for them to come here and express themselves,” she said.

To diversify the night’s performances and keep the material fresh, Beaubien said the club books a variety of well-known poets each week, and creates theme nights to avoid standard routines. On Valentine’s Day for example , an Erotic Poetry open mic is scheduled.

Slam sessions give artists an outlet to address personal issues that may be difficult to discuss in normal conversation, said Melanie Bishop, editor in chief of Northeastern’s Spectrum Literary Arts Magazine. The wide ranging content of the verses encourages people to attend the sessions.

“[Poetry slams] are nice to experience because you get to see the different ways in which the English language can be expressed, “Bishop said. “Your grammar teachers may not have wanted you to know it, but the English language is ever changing; one has to keep up with these changes. Poetry slams still use the basic principles of poetry and experiment with it.”

Slam poetry’s appeal lies in its ability to lift a written poem off the page, Bishop said. Artists channel their emotions through their delivery, which can range from loud and expressive to slow and relaxed. These methods of delivery are key in a competition to win audience support, she said.

While competition is an important element of poetry slams, Beaubien said many poets use the sessions to spread a message.

“There’s no getting around the fact that you are scored in a slam and some poets do want to say they are ‘winners,’ but for other poets the fact that they can hit someone in the audience with a message and change their day, or even their lives, is more important than a title,” Beaubien said.

Student groups like the Latin American Student Association and the NU English Club, among others, have hosted slam poetry events in the past. But some students don’t think poetry slams are an effective means of expression.

“To begin with they don’t make sense to me because they are monotonous and sometimes people are just screaming out to get noticed, and the message of a poem is lost,” said Max Peralta, a senior international business major.

However, senior English and philosophy major Laura Mangano, who has also been to poetry slams and writes her own poetry, said slamming’s most powerful appeal is the collaboration between the poet and the audience.

“Writing about things that happened in your life, or your emotions, is a great way to experiment with poetry and learn about yourself,” she said. “I think some of the great poets would also like this new form of poetry because it is exciting and encourages participation, therefore expanding poetry’s reach.”

For more on poetry slams, check out the Cantab Lounge, 738 Massachusetts Ave., every Wednesday at 8 p.m. Take the Red Line to the Central Square stop. For a $3 cover charge, audiences get a three-hour slam show.

Visit www.slamnews.com for additional information.

Leave a Reply