Slam poetry finally gets a Team NH
New Hampshire’s slammers are carving out a scene
By Erica Febre firstname.lastname@example.org
Poetry performed live has a bad reputation — that it’s long, maudlin and uninteresting.
“There’s such a negative association with poetry … Most people are really hesitant about poetry, especially when you say [it’s] on a Friday night. It’s upsetting that people would dismiss it without even checking it out first,” said Mark “The Kernel” Palos, a local slam poet.
Slam poetry is the competitive art of performance poetry, putting a dual emphasis on writing and performance, encouraging poets to focus on what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, says Hope Jordan, a slam poet host. The art has gained fans nationally (think Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry on HBO) and locally, with regular slam poetry events at some local cafés.
It began in the early ‘80s with a writer and performer named Marc “Slam Pappy” Smith in Chicago. He began hosting poetry readings at a place called the Green Mill. The actual history of slam poetry dates much further back than this, but Smith has been widely recognized as the precipitator of the long-overlooked outlet for performance poets.
Since then, slam poetry has popped up across the country, especially in larger metro areas, like Boston and New York.
Yet, New Hampshire has some talent of its own. It seems that fewer venues are willing to open the floor to poetry. Or, if they do take a chance on it, it doesn’t last long.
Home for NH slammers
The Bridge Café, in downtown Manchester, according to Unseen, has featured the longest run as of yet for New Hampshire.
The owners, George Bezanson and Roi Shpindler, opened their doors to poetry soon after opening their doors for business.
“We supported it at the very beginning. The idea of doing a poetry night sounded like a good way to bring something different to town. We had the space to do it, so we did,” Bezanson said.
As time went on, more people stared showing up to the nights. The last slam night, held on Nov. 17, had such a good turnout that it was standing-room-only.
“Having a poetry night is kind of like having a baby. You have to nurture it and help it to grow. I think it’s just going to grow and grow and more people are going to start showing. Then, before you know it, it’s a constant running thing,” said Unseen, a Manchester slam poet.
“The Bridge Café has totally taken us under their wing. It’s beautiful that they’re willing to give us a home. Not many places are willing to do something like that,” he said.
Rules and regulations
“Slam is a double-edged sword. Someone who is a fantastic poet but a horrible performer will lose at slam but someone who is a somewhat good poet and a great performer will win a slam,” said Mark Palos, another poet and slam host.
Slammers are allowed only a matter of minutes to work their magic on the audience. The judges are randomly picked out of the audience and can give scores on a scale of 0.0 to 10.0, with fractions of a point permitted. A perfect 10 would be the highest score possible, while anything below a five is considered absolutely horrible.
“A slam is really interactive with the audience. The judges are picked from the audience, the most random judges that you can find. We try to find someone who knows the least about poetry and let them judge. That’s the spirit of the competition” Jordan said.
Each slammer must come to the microphone with an original work. No music or props can be used to enhance the performance. They must impress the audience with their words only. Unseen has already won a slam and says he no longer needs to compete. He’s taking over hosting for now so Palos can himself compete.
New Hampshire has never had a representative at the national poetry slam competitions., though Maine and Vermont have often fielded teams.
Now, for the first time ever, New Hampshire will have representatives at the competition slated to take place in Austin, Texas, next summer. The Bridge Cafe will register as an official venue in February.
After receiving that certification, they’ll be able to field a team of their own and prepare for the big slam in April. Slammers are being recruited at the Bridge Cafe to form the New Hampshire team.
“It would be great to see Manchester become the mecca for poetry. .. . We’re just trying to get something established,” Unseen said.