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Slammin'
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Poems by the people, for the people

photo of turntablesAt 2 o’clock in the afternoon on the Sunday before fall semester exams, the only person darting around lower campus is Matt Werner ’06. The freshman, a slender figure in jeans, a blue winter jacket, and a fuzzy Santa cap, is taping up pink flyers that say “POETRY SLAM / HIGGINS 300.” Werner is preoccupied with the literary-performance competition he’s been organizing for more than a month, an event slated to begin in 30 minutes: “As of Friday, 40 or 50 people had expressed interest in performing,” he says. “But there was a big slam last night, so we could see anywhere between 10 and 40 poets today.” So far, only six or seven poets have shown.

BC has not been a player in the local spoken-poetry community, which is why Werner, a California native who used to be active in a Bay Area spoken-word collective called Youth Speaks, is so intent on bringing shows like this to his new school. “The slams in Cambridge are nice,” he writes in an e-mail, referring to the matches held in nightclubs across the river. “But most of the competitors are over 35 and speak with a Beat-poet style. I would like to establish a slam specifically for college students—so that we can voice our own concerns.” One way he hopes to do this is by starting a spoken-word club at BC.

The term “spoken-word poetry” describes the performance style of a slam, and it is broad enough to accommodate sundry interpretations. As Werner notes, it can mean middle-aged folks mimicking Allen Ginsberg. It can signify theatrical presentations of intricate couplets, Shakespearean sonnets, or impromptu haikus. But it can also indicate a recitation of rhyming verses quickly delivered with a lyrical flow, a patter of speech that’s clearly influenced by hip-hop music and urban youth culture. “The beauty of the slam to many kids like us,” explains John Yi ’06, a lyricist and disc jockey who will cohost the slam as his record-spinning alter ego DJ Yi, “is that the outer shell is hip-hop and the core is the poetry.”

Werner rushes back to Higgins 300, a lecture hall amphitheater that holds 150 people, but the poets he is expecting from the Navajo Nation travel team (out of New Mexico) haven’t yet arrived. About 50 BC students are dispersed among the seats, along with seven or eight would-be bards and a handful of faculty. At stage right, Yi, in baggy khakis and a grey hooded sweatshirt with navy blue sleeves, sits with his turntables, playing hip-hop records by rappers like Dr. Dre and Busta Rhymes.

Werner improvises. Still wearing his Santa hat, he explains that the next 45 minutes or so will be an open-mike segment “to get the poetic juices flowing” before the actual slam, or competition, begins.

photo of Matt Werner '06Six poets take turns holding the floor. Dan Pritchard, a soft-spoken BC sophomore, declaims a short composition that “deals with the problem that we all become our parents.” Valerie Lawson, copresident of the Boston Poetry Slam, quotes poet and essayist Charles Bernstein: “Poetry is like a swoon with this difference: It brings you to your senses.” An animated woman in horizontal stripes and blue jeans compares a young boy’s front teeth to “green Chiclets gum” and his hairdo to a “nuclear blast gone bad.” Werner performs four pieces, including an improvised ditty (also known as a “freestyle”) about his homesickness for Oakland, and an extended consonant rhyme with lines like, “My little education money is spent by Gray Davis and nonexistent face-lifts / The federal government sends it to Mars to get lost in spaceships.”

AFTER A 10-minute intermission for chips and soda, the tardy Navajo poets, bundled in jackets and loaded up with backpacks, appear—they’d gotten lost. Werner reviews the rules, and the slam begins. Five BC students randomly selected from the audience by Lawson will act as judges. (“Hey, want to be a judge? What’s your name?”—the idea of the slam is that the average person will recognize a well-performed poem.) The highest score a poet can receive for a rendition is 30. Half a point is deducted from the tally for every 10 seconds that a recitation exceeds three minutes. By these rules, Werner tells the audience, a perfect reading of Dante’s Inferno would receive a score of 88,721.6.

First up is the “sacrificial poet,” an expression used for someone not competing whose presentation will be used to calibrate the judging scale. Yi will fill this role. “Say he gets a 9,” Werner says. “Any poet who does a better job than him would get higher than a 9. Anyone who does worse would get lower.” Yi moves away from his turntables to recite a rhyming poem about aspects of living that he finds beautiful, like, “Passing a test you didn’t study for / Watching the symphonic sunset on the shore.” When Yi wraps up, the judges scrawl scores on individual 8x10 dry-erase boards. His final mark is 16.5.

Eight poets participate in the slam. Most are high school students, so the poems tend to be emotive, almost therapeutic. “Pain,” “pride,” “hurt,” and “love” are recurring words. Emily Farquharson—a 17-year-old student at a private school in Weston, Massachusetts—delivers what she calls a “heartbreak poem” addressed to an unnamed muse: “You should have bought some Krazy Glue for my heart” and “My therapist hates you—so there.” Tiffany Reid of New Mexico, a brassy, energetic girl with sleek black hair, mixes Spanish with hip-hop argot (“uno, dos, tres” and “bling bling”). Navajo poet Theron Collins, a smiling, heavyset kid with a tattooed forearm, raps about his lack of sympathy for peers who end up in trouble (“Save the drama for your mama”).

Scores range from 19.2 to 26.9 and after the first two rounds, three leaders emerge: Collins, Farquharson, and Laydith Long, a 16-year-old Navajo poet from Shiprock Northwest High School. To determine a winner, they perform one last time. Collins opts for a rap with the refrain, “Native Son / I am the only one,” Farquharson muses about intimate moments with a companion, and Long gracefully whispers about desperation (“I am screaming— doesn’t anyone hear me?”). In the end, Long’s sad, almost spooky presentation earns her first place with a score of 26.2, which is 0.3 over second-place finisher Farquharson. Long’s prize? A bag of pretzels, a package of nacho chips, a jar of salsa, and a 12-pack of Coke.

After the show, Werner seems pleased. “It’s too bad it took 45 minutes for the poets to show up,” he says softly. “But I have 21 names on the sign-up sheet for a spoken-word club. And that’s certainly a beginning.”

Camille Dodero ’98

Camille Dodero is a writer based in the Boston area. Her story on Alumni Stadium’s Superfan section, “What’s Up, Buttercup,” appeared in BCM, Fall 2002.

Photos (from top):

Music by DJ Yi—a.k.a. John Yi ’06. By Lee Pellegrini

Matt Werner ’06, poetry club founder. By Lee Pellegrini


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  » “An incomplete history of slam”
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  » “Youth Speaks”


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