February 4, 2010

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Love, sex and poetry
Slam Free or Die celebrates Valentine’s with erotic poetry
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

Friday night, Feb. 5, the Bridge Café in downtown Manchester will be a destination of choice for playful romantics seeking an early Valentine’s Day mojo, at an evening of erotic poetry along with Slam Free or Die’s regular slam poetry competition.

Poet Diane Haas will round out the relatively packed night with a feature reading of her often-provocative work.

Slam poetry is worlds away from anything that former Granite State resident Robert Frost could have comprehended: “It’s focused not on the poetry itself but on the performance of the poetry,” said Mark Palos, a Manchester native who began organizing the biweekly event a few years ago.

Palos said he advises would-be slam poets, “you have to be the poem. You’re not performing it, you’re trying to embody it.”

The Manchester readings reflect a steadily growing poetry scene that’s given birth to a surprisingly competitive national team, Palos said. “There are more readings in New Hampshire than ever been before,” said Palos, including one begun recently at Stone Church in Newmarket by a pair of Bridge Café regulars.

He expects Haas’s appearance to significantly raise the bar for the other poets.

Since returning to the circuit after a time away, Haas has become a big draw at poetry slams throughout New England.  She’s named Manchester her “artistic home.”

“Diane’s kind of a character,” Palos said. “When she first started coming to the reading in August, I noticed her poetry had an erotic edge to it, a lot of double entendres and twists to common themes. Reusing words in a kind of dirty way, and she had this one poem that was a hit — ‘Not the Girl Next Door.’ She doesn’t solely write about erotic stuff, but it comes out in a lot of her work, so I thought she’d be a really good fit for a feature.”

Palos became sure of his decision after Haas made an appearance at last October’s Halloween-themed Dead Authors Night. For the event, poets were asked to dress as their favorite character from literature. Haas’s performance was equal parts poetry, burlesque and rock show.

She wrote a “persona poem” depicting Jessica Rabbit reading a sultry, double-entendre-laced ode of somewhat equivocal love to her husband Roger Rabbit. Haas cooed lines like “when you’re built like an hourglass, you learn to keep time” and “every man loves a woman in dis dress” — referring to the satin, bare-shouldered number she was wearing, which, coupled with elbow-length blue gloves, made her a dead ringer for the Kim Basinger-voiced chanteuse famous for saying “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” 

“For someone dressed up as a cartoon character, it was the best costume I’ve ever seen,” said Palos, who called the outfit “risqué, borderline indecent.”

The first erotic poetry night at Bridge Café happened four years ago, after the regular slam fell on Valentine’s Day. An erotic themed event at Cantab Lounge, a Cambridge club Palos regularly attends (he tries to hit “at least two a week”), prompted an effort to do something similar in Manchester. 

“Having a poetry night on a Friday night, you want to put on the best show you can, because there’s a lot of other things to do,” Palos said. “The cliché of poetry is it’s all hearts and flowers, and we tried to make a joke of that and have everybody dress up as if they’re going on a date, or bring a date with them, and that became a running theme.”

Soon, a friendly competition reached full flower.

“It became a thing to try and top one another and be a little outrageous. The funny thing is a lot of our regulars don’t write erotic poetry typically,” Palos said, “so it’s fun to see people who don’t normally write about that sort of thing coming out of their shell and doing something a little risqué and fun.”

Most poetry events at the Bridge are for all ages, but Valentine’s Day is different. “It’s gonna be PG-13 to R, maybe getting into the NC-17 territory,” Palos says, “but nothing offensive.”

Before Palos got involved, Granite State slam poets looking to compete nationally would join teams from other New England states. He got the Bridge Café set up as a nationally registered venue and scheduling regular slams that adhered to national rules. 

In 2007, the team went to the national competition in Austin, Texas, where fellow poets gave them their “Slam Free or Die” moniker, and they ended up placing third from the bottom. But the fact that the two teams they beat had been to nationals before inspired them, said Palos, “to find where the bar was and what to shoot for.”

Last year, they finished in the middle of the pack, 35th out of 70 teams, and nearly made the semifinals.

“What was missing when we first started was a real strong core of competitive slam poets to work from,” Palos said. The monthly slam has now grown from 8 to 10 poets. With such a crowded field, says Palos, “everybody improves and has to up their game.”