So You Want to Go to Your First Poetry Slam


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Lane Russell's picture

Cambridge poetry slam attendees give advice to newcomers

At 7:30 p.m. every Sunday, the Lizard Lounge, 1667 Massachusetts Ave., opens its doors to hold what attendees consider to be an “inspiring” and “special” event: a poetry slam. 

According to the National Poetry Slam website, a poetry slam is, simply, an event at which slam poetry is performed.  The concept of a poetry slam is credited to Chicago resident Marc Smith, who came up with the idea in 1984. While the technicalities of a poetry slam vary depending on the venue, there are some general rules. 

Poets are given three minutes to perform their piece, and are then judged by a panel of randomly selected audience members on a scale of one to 10. Audience members are encouraged to cheer, snap and mildly heckle the poet and the judges. At the end, the performer with the highest score is awarded first place. 

For people who are not familiar with slam poetry, attendees at this past Sunday’s Lizard Lounge slam sum it up:

“Slam poetry is poetry performed in front of an audience … It’s more theatrical than just reading it from a piece of paper,” said Mingh Hattori. 

“[Slam poetry is] poetry that is performed in a passionate, and occasionally aggressive, way. And it’s competitive … You gotta kind of bring it,” said poet Roger Deschenes. 

Taika Brand said that it is very important for newcomers to know that a poetry slam is a place where they can (and should) be themselves.  

Slam poetry often tackles complex issues like racial relations and identities, gender, politics, sex and so on. Hattori warns that newcomers should “be ready for the unexpected and try to not take things personally… You’ve just got to have a thick skin.” 

Along with acting as a forum for complex issues, poetry slams are a community experience and bring people together. 

 “The coolest thing in the world is this,” said Deschenes, “So you’re going to perform your piece, right? And you’re going to do it in a room full of strangers, right? So that means you’ve been practicing your piece in an empty room by yourself for like hours on end … You’re together in that experience … You love words, and you want to say something that’s inside you.” 

Deschenes also said that slam poetry brings validation, both to the poet and to the community.  Not only is the poet able to share “something that’s inside” with the community, but the poet “can reflect and hold a mirror up so the community from where they come is reflected back… [The poet] can bring attention to the small things that can get ignored.” 

Cambridge and the Greater Boston area have several venues that hold weekly slams: 

The Lizard Lounge every Sunday with doors opening at 7:30 p.m.; the Cantab Lounge, 738 Massachusetts Ave., every Wednesday with doors at 7:15 p.m.; and the 7Hills Poetry Slam at the Sahara Restaurant, 143 Highland St., Worcester, the first Sunday of every month. 

For more information on these slams, visit their websites at Lizard Lounge, Cantab Lounge and 7Hills Poetry Slam, and for more information on slam poetry in general, visit the National Poetry Slam website