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Poetry Slam at 25: Why Some People Stand in Line in the Rain to Hear Poems

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Last week, a somewhat remarkable thing happened: Throughout Boston and Cambridge, people stood in lines outside venues, sometimes for more than an hour, and sometimes even in the rain, to go see poetry. And not just any poetry: poetry created by a mix of spoken word practitioners -- some known to small press poetry fans and the college tour circuit, but others unknown outside hometowns as far-flung as Boise, Salt Lake City, and Delray Beach, Fla.

This was the 2011 edition of the curious annual tradition known as the National Poetry Slam, featuring 76 teams -- comprised of four to five poets per team, formed through competitions run by local organizers -- battling it out in bars and performance spaces for bragging rights and cash prizes. On Saturday night at the Berklee Performance Center, the team from the Cafe Nuba in Denver beat teams from Columbus' Writing Wrongs series, New York's Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and the Providence Poetry Slam to win it all.

This year's National Poetry Slam also came on the heels of another, perhaps even more remarkable thing that happened several weeks ago -- poetry slam celebrated its 25th birthday with an all-star poetry show in its birthplace of Chicago, with some of the biggest names and best talents in slam's history coming together.

Chicago construction worker and poet Marc Smith, when he started slam 25 years ago, did so out of Dadaist impulse, as a reaction to the rarefied air of academic readings -- and an unearned rarefied, at that, in his view. The basic rules are simple: each poet gets a turn at the microphone, with three minutes to read a poem. The host then calls for a panel of judges to give that poem a numerical score, based on its content and performance. To continue on to subsequent rounds, the poet must score highly enough to beat out other poets.

The notion of poetry being competitive was a statement, a way to take our culture of loving sports and welding it to something regarded as far more esoteric. And, of course, it worked and gained momentum precisely because we do have a culture of loving sports, and loving competition, and thinking in terms of winners and losers.

What's more, the audience given permission to react in any way to the poets on stage performing (as well as the judges' scoring) puts the needs of the audience before the needs of the performer -- which is pretty much antithetical to open-mike poetry readings, which often end up being a live workshop in which poets test out what works and what doesn't with the level of trepidation you might expect from just such an endeavor.

The National Poetry Slam is a further evolution of competition to be sure, and the poets who join together on teams as a result of winning a big slam competition -- and, yes, there's often a reality show dynamic to team members from different walks of life having to work together, form a unit, and then live together in a hotel during Nationals week -- taking it seriously enough to train and practice and prepare work specifically engineered for rules that allow multi-voiced pieces to be an option for competition teams to use during their respective turns.

But the event is so much more that that. For those who participate, it's part traveling circus, part poet convention and workshop, and part family reunion for the diaspora of poets and organizers who give time and energy to the endeavor of making slam happen.

Saturday's sold-out show at the Berklee showcased a good number of poems articulating the most vital ways in which slam works. Slam works well -- perhaps best -- when there's a diverse representation of viewpoints, and therefore variegated approaches to three minutes on the microphone, with poems ranging from the first-person confessional and politically-charged commentary which are typically associated with slam, to narratives that take performative and even syntactical risks.

One of the most talked-about poems of the night, a quintet by the Denver Nuba team about chain gangs, explored questions about why and how chain gangs used music, with an exquisitely-crafted piece that utilized complex vocal arrangements and practiced choreography.

Another raved-about poem, by Providence poet Laura Brown-Lavoie, was a surprising, meditative piece that began with her chanting "bean," politely getting the audience to chant it for her in rhythm, and then winding the remainder of the poem around that pole. Poets in the crowd were even moved to chant "bean" filing out of the Berklee's narrow lobby -- a testament to the genuine support slam poets have for each other's work.

Sometimes, despite teams coming together in competition from very different places, narratives will emerge in the staggered order of teams reading. Early in the competition, poets engaged with questions and observations about place. Providence's Franny Choi opened the bout with a rapid-fire tour through Seoul as framed by Korean drinking game songs, while Columbus' Will Evans delivered a love letter to his hometown with a resonant, emotionally-rich piece with lines like, "My town is a sunset everyone is an hour late for."

The Nuyorican team joined the conversation later, in a way, with a poem that focused on "first-world problems" and the culture of complaint they saw Americans engaging them, providing contrasts between America and underdeveloped countries to give audience members a sense of their place in the world.

Throughout the week, a great number of teams who didn't get to grace the finals stage - including the teams from New York's Louder Arts and St. Paul's Soapboxing slams highlighted in a story that aired on WBUR-FM -- delivered generally well-wrought and decidedly practiced work in more confined, sold-out venues, combining the intimacy of theater with the intensity of prizefight.

Not every team and every poet delivers work that delights everyone or meets a certain aesthetic standard, of course, but the competition is structured to where a team's consistency and strength is rewarded with more stage time and bigger venues. But this year's competition had, if not more of a parity to it, at least a sense that it is a community of competitors who are collective learning from the history of past teams' occasional missteps and are not quite dooming themselves to repeat it.

And so the movement that started 25 years ago -- which has entered and exited a '90s MTV infatuation, an HBO multi-season series featuring some of slam's upper echelon of poets, pop culture references, and various academic critiques and defenses -- is in as healthy a place, if not a more high-profile place, than it's ever been.