Jan. 29 - Feb. 2, 2001

Slam! The Live Poets' Society

In Their Own Words  

Poetry slams breathe new life into the poetry genre. Teens around the country are finding that performing their original work at slams gives them a forum to express how they feel. What is on the minds and in the hearts of urban youth?

It's Monday night, and a group of mainly teens and twenty-somethings converge upon a funky coffee shop in Worcester, Massachusetts, armed with their notebooks and journals. They've come to the Java Hut to read their poetry—some wanting to try out new material during the open-mike session, others ready to perform more polished pieces in the competitive slam that follows.

Host Sou MacMillan stokes the mood of the room as she outlines the rules of a slam. Five judges, selected at random from the audience, will rate performers just as in the Olympics, with scores ranging from 0.0 to 10.0. "Zero being 'Don't ever do that again'; ten being 'Oh yeah! Bring it on!" yells MacMillan. Both the highest and lowest scores will be dropped, and the remaining points added together for a poet's score. Exceeding the three-minute limit costs half a point. And the most important rule, which everyone chants in unison: Be nice!

The struggling artists throw what they can into the donation basket, raising $10 for the night's cash prize. Then, the performances begin. One by one, six poets confront their listeners, not only with words but with themselves.

Nineteen-year-old Jon Wolf, who looks like an intellectual surfer with dimples, recites his poems rap-style, with a speed, rhythm, and urgency that convey both his idealism and his passion.

Craig Nelson's wry depictions of college life provoke laughter in all the right places, thanks to his deadpan delivery. Despite the variety of messages and how they're delivered, the common denominator here is the words—they come from the heart.

Read an excerpt of Wolf's poem, "the art of epitaph writing":

All we've really got left
through the factory smoke and mushroom clouds
are the big dreams that we still have to dream:
a Volvo, 401K, 2.3 children, a 3-piece job.
You got laid off
your accounts went belly up
your car broke down
and your kids are evolving trigger fingers.
Our kids are shooting.
Is this progress?

  • What specific images in Wolf's poem do you find most compelling?

  • How would you sum up his principle concern?

  • How do you imagine Wolf might read his piece? Click on the video below to find out.

Youth Speaks

Hear more from young authors in Worcester's poetry scene. (Requires QuickTime. Download now.)

Jon Wolf will self-publish his second book of poetry, sermons off the stage, in February 2001. View the video in either 28k or 100k.

Craig Nelson, 24, believes in imagery, wit, revision, and the use of a dictionary when crafting a poem. In one, he tries to find a balance between work and play. View the video in either 28k or 100k.
In another, Nelson dwells on life at his apartment ( 28k or 100k ).

Erica-ann Berger, 20, says the only bad response to a slam poem is an apathetic one.
View the video in either 28k or 100k.

Growing up is one of Gwen Ellen Rider's themes.
View the video in either 28k or 100k.

Welcome to Java Hut's slam. This clip shows one of Worcester's slam veterans, the 41-year-old Tony Brown, performing. Click either the 28k or 100k button to view the video. (Requires QuickTime. Download now.)

If you have a high-speed connection, you can view a larger movie. It may take a few minutes for the movie to download.

Jon Wolf's poem reveals what slam is all about . Click either the 28k or 100k button to view the video.

Poetry Finds Its Voice  

These urban poets are following in the lively tradition of slams, which erupted in Chicago in 1986. A group of actor/poets launched the movement and soon found a permanent home in a jazz club called the Green Mill. The poetry slam name took its inspiration from baseball's grand slam home run.

Poet Michael Brown, who was instrumental in bringing slams to New England, lived just four blocks away from the Green Mill.

"I was kind of put off by the idea of slam [at first]," he says from his office at Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts, where he now teaches communications. "There was an element of competition—and of course the cash prizes—that sort of put me off."

But Brown's girlfriend was Chicago's reigning slam champion, and it wasn't long before she convinced him to join the ranks. He's been hooked ever since and now runs weekly slams at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For him, it's a chance to hear other writers and constantly improve his own work. Brown has watched other authors develop as well.

One 15-year-old girl has been slamming at the Cantab for four years. "We've seen her poetry mature considerably," says Brown. "And the way that happens is that she stays in touch with the things that are important to her in her life at that time. She's not trying to be older than she is, she's not trying to hang onto her childhood. She's trying to deal with where she is, wherever that is, now. "

Brown says slams provide a wonderful opportunity to hear a rich diversity of voices. "We've actually put the voice back into poetry," he says. "The voice has been leeched out of poetry by imprisoning poetry in books for a century. Now we're back to filling that continuum or spectrum of poetry which is oral. It disappeared for a short while in the twentieth century, but it's back."


Sarah Guimond, 19, has written 502 poems since October 1999. Hear an excerpt from one of her latest ones. Click either the 28k or 100k button to view the video.
The Art of Performance  

During slams, participants are judged on performance as well as content. Memorization is not required. Poets use their bodies as instruments, employing motions and movement to deliver their poems exactly as intended. An excess amount of dramatizing is not necessary. "Gesture and motion just to add dramatic flair doesn't seem to wear very well," says Brown. "There's also the important, the serious poem that is delivered standing still. You don't have to put on a show."

Still, slamming can intimidate poets who have written only for the page.

"The stage is not for everyone. A lot of the page poets are introverted and find it difficult," says Brown. "This isn't theater. We are speaking our own lines, not lines that someone wrote for us. We're nakedly out there with just our language."

Along with the fear, though, comes a certain aliveness and a sense of connection. Worcester slammer, 20-year-old Erica-ann Berger calls the experience electric. "It's a lot about emotions," she says. "Using your body and your words to make others feel. Something, anything really, even if it's outrage . . . The only bad response is an apathetic one."


Become a Bard

  • What are some of your chief concerns, worries, or joys?

  • Try your hand at writing a poem about one of them. Don't worry about the rules of poetry, just get something down on the page.

  • Now, imagine that you were going to perform your piece at a slam. What gestures, movements, tone of voice, and pace of delivery might help you convey your message in the best possible way?


Michael Brown, instrumental in bringing slam to New England, takes a break from work to perform "At the Dentist." Click either the 28k or 100k button to view the video.

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