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'Anything Can Happen': World Series Of Slam Poetry Returns To Boston

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The National Poetry Slam—the World Series, the Super Bowl, the World Cup of performance poetry—rolls back into town next week. The competition—featuring 72 teams from across the United States and Canada vying at 15 venues across Cambridge, Somerville and Boston from Aug. 13 to 17—returns after being here just two years ago because, organizers say, the 2011 event was “the most well attended National Poetry Slam in history.” So get your tickets early.

Slam poetry, in case you’re unfamiliar, involves poets reciting original, 3-minute compositions that are graded on the spot, Olympic-judges-style, by “randomly selected” members of the audience each night. “The ideal judges are completely inexperienced and perhaps have never heard of a poetry slam before,” professes event director Simone Beaubien, who has hosted the “Boston Poetry Slam” at Cambridge’s Cantab Lounge since 2004.

Slammers acknowledge the absurdity and humor of judging art as if it were a sport. But in this is the core of the field’s populist philosophy. On one hand, it’s a straightforward way to add drama and hook the audience, but it’s also a pointed satire of the traditional, academic poetry world and how it determines quality. And in embracing the inexperienced, the unbona fide, Beaubien notes, slam often “gives voice and a value to voices that we don’t always get to hear or that have been discouraged.”

“The slam was invented to bring more people into the fold of poetry,” Beaubien says. “Slam is the missionary for poetry.” It is a raucous barroom competition generally said to have been founded by Marc Smith at a Chicago saloon in 1984, with audience hooting and hollering and heckling encouraged.

“Slam was invented to compete with clinking glasses and alcohol and altered mental spaces,” Beaubien says. It was designed to add dazzle and drama, sex and swagger to what is often caricatured as a stuffy, stodgy art. Slam mashes up beatnik patter, rap battle, personal confession, a cappella singing, political rant, storytelling, and stand-up comedy. Beaubien recalls that slam poet Jack McCarthy, who died last January, used to say, “If poetry is a circus that sets up outside of town, slam is the sideshow tent.”

Over three decades, this potent concoction has spread across the world, sparked the first National Poetry Slam in San Francisco in 1990—said to have featured a team from Chicago, a team from San Francisco and a lone poet from New York—and picked up regional variations.

This year’s National Slam will feature teams from Vancouver, distinguished, Beaubien says, for “a cappella singing with layered voices” and the influence of a nonsense poet there who emphasizes sound, and from St. Paul, Minnesota’s Soap Boxing Poetry Slam, which won back-to-back national championships in 2009 and ’10. Beaubien says the St. Paul folks “will bring the hits. This is a team that wants to win. … They’re a strategic powerhouse.” (Watch Jillian Christmas from Vancouver and Hieu Nguyen, one of the members of this year’s St. Paul team, in videos here.)

The Neo-Soul Slam in Austin, Texas, is known for sending “brash, funny” poets, for beatboxing, and for “a lot of collaborative group work among their artists,” Beaubien says. “There are two Columbus, Ohio, teams and both are filled with snark,” she adds.

Albuquerque’s ABQ team won nationals in 2005 and best group piece in 2011. “They tend to be a very politically-driven and male-focused team,” Beaubien says. “This is a team that is very interested in attacking all those topical questions and doing it in their poetry.” She adds, “They have a group piece style that some of us have termed the wall of sound.”

Here the competition begins with three evenings of preliminary bouts in Cambridge and Somerville from Aug. 13 to 15. The 20 top scoring teams advance to semi-finals on Aug. 16. Four winners from that night then battle in the finals at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17.

In addition to the competitions, the National Slam also offers readings by Jewish poets, by Asian-American and Pacific Islander poets, by African-American poets, by lesbian, bisexual, gay and trans poets. It presents showcases of poems about parenting and illness and grief and trauma. It offers a reading of “some of the worst poems ever committed to paper (or digital equivalent.)” And late at night it has performances of erotica, a hip-hop showcase, and “stand-up comedians vs. funny slam poets.”

“It’s really a genre where anything can happen,” Beaubien says. “It’s a very ephemeral and in-the-moment competition form. And that’s the most spectacular thing to me.”