The Hippo


May 30, 2020








Sam Rush, member of the SFOD National Poetry Slam team. Christopher Clauss photo.

10 years of Slam Free or Die

By Kelly Sennott

It’s Thursday night, and Milly’s Tavern is packed. And not just the side function room, where Slam Free or Die normally meets for open mikes, slams and poetry features. No, tonight — March 26 — there are at least 100 poetry enthusiasts crowded about the main restaurant’s bars and tables, with hardly enough chairs for everyone. Even the women’s bathroom has a line.

These enthusiasts are recognizable because of their attentiveness not to the Bruins game but to the stage, where a line of 10 waits to lay it all on the mike. Most are in their mid- to late-20s, but some are older, some younger. Most of them wear cropped and colorful hair, big glasses, hats and a mix of punk-rock and grunge chic attire. Huddled at the front sits a group of high schoolers hoping to catch a glimpse of the action before curfew.
“What’s up, Manchester?!” emcee Sam Teitel exclaims at the start of the night — 8 p.m. A few hoots, a few cheers, but not good enough for Teitel. He tries twice more before the crowd releases a loud, fervorous cheer.
This night is no regular Thursday night slam at Milly’s. Tonight, five judges — chosen based on the fact they’ve never been here before — will decide which of these 10 qualifiers will represent Manchester at August’s National Poetry Slam in Oakland. 
Tonight, they speak of love, heartbreak, family, addiction, domestic abuse. They compare women to sharks, describe the terror of losing a kid at the fair and the fear of turning out just like dad. Some poems are narratives, others political statements. 
Their commonality is their passion and their medium: slam poetry.
Slam 101
Every Thursday night slam at Milly’s starts pretty much the same way. When the crowd is settled, the emcee gets to the front of the room and reads the official “Emcee Spiel.”
“The poetry slam is a competition invented in the 1980s by a Chicago construction worker named Marc Smith,” the emcee says. (The crowd, because of Smith’s past derogatory public comments about slam poetry in the States, shouts, “So what?”) The emcee continues, “It was perfected in the 1990s by a Boston area journalist named Patti Smith.” (Crowd yells, “[Heck] yeah!”)
The spiel also contains the slam’s rules. Normally, poets have three minutes to present their original work, and five judges — ideally SFOD virgins who don’t know competitors personally — score the poems from 1 to 10, looking at content, performance and originality. The high and low scores are dropped, the middle three added together.
Before contenders read, it’s tradition with SFOD (and national and international poetry events) that the slam begin with a “sacrificial poet,” whose work judges will score, but who won’t be part of the real competition. 
Music, props and costumes are forbidden in slams. Whispering, shouting, arm gestures and jumping up and down are not. During most important competitions, poets will have memorized their work, but some will read from a piece of paper or smartphone screen.
“It’s a huge challenge,” said Slammaster Mark Palos. “You’ve got to get your point across as effectively as possible in three minutes. It’s a challenge to be constantly coming up with new work and delivering something competitors don’t expect. … After that, you just play jazz. You find out what physical movements make sense. You figure out how you can give that line punch with body, facial expressions and the sound of your voice.”
Judges can be anybody. You don’t need to “know” poetry, says Palos, because slam isn’t supposed to be this puzzling, unapproachable art form. Even if you don’t “get” a poem, Palos says, everyone can understand passion.
“I think at least half the people coming to our readings for the first time have a very specific idea of what they think the show is going to be like. Once they actually experience it, they’re completely blown away,” Palos said. “Or you get the people who think poetry is so quiet and almost impersonal, that they’re not going to get anything out of it, because poetry has never yet engaged them in any way. … There are times when I’ll have someone new say to me, ‘I didn’t even know a poem could be like that.’”
Slam Free or Die origins
When Palos returned home to Manchester in 2005 looking for a community of writers like the one he had at the University of New Hampshire, he found a newly started open mike at the Bridge Cafe. The readings reminded him of Def Poetry Jam, a spoken-word poetry series on HBO, which Palos says was more “rap or hip-hop focused” than SFOD today, which is more writing-focused.
“I discovered over time that there was a ton of poetry interest in Manchester,” Palos said. “But there [hadn’t been] anywhere they could do it.”
He began attending and eventually took over the open mike with Hope Jordan. Many in this crowd were already slam poets but regularly represented other area teams in Boston, Portland or Worcester at larger slams. He and Jordan, tired of seeing this, decided they wanted to make a New Hampshire slam team. They worked hard to build up the open mike night and complete the prerequisites and paperwork. In 2007, SFOD sent its first team to the National Poetry Slam.
Poetic Fight Club
“Have you ever seen the movie Fight Club?” Palos asked. “Slam Free or Die is kind of like that. It’s this really special thing that matters so much to you, but you can’t put it into words why it matters so much. ….  Most people don’t even know it exists.”
On regular Thursday nights, it’s easy to miss; SFOD’s National Poetry Slam qualifying event was in the main function room, but normally it meets in Milly’s hidden side function room, around the corner and behind the bar. You have to know it’s there to find it.
In the air is this very supportive community atmosphere hard to put into words. Every slam, the judges are urged to remain unswayed by audience’s responses to their scores, because they will boo at the low ones, cheer at the high. The only time the room isn’t loud is when a poet is reading.
“When they’re reading, you can hear a pin drop,” Palos said. “When featured poets come in through other scenes, I often have to tell them before they go onstage that we’ve kind of trained our audience to be a really good listening audience.”
You can usually tell who SFOD’s Fight Club-like members are based on how they interact with the show. Whenever someone says, “I’ve never done this before,” they cheer. When a poet says something particularly moving, they snap their fingers. When a reader forgets his poem, they hoot, holler and clap in support. Once, when a poet was crying before she could read her piece because of its intensity, Palos shouted, “Jump, we’ll catch you!” so now that’s a SFOD phrase too.
Palos says he lives for slam, and many in the Manchester scene say the same. William James actually moved from Pennsylvania to Manchester because of its slam scene.
First slam
James’s first slam was with Steel City Slam in Pittsburgh. He remembers seeing the room packed, the crowd on its feet.
“Of course, I was scared out of my mind. I’m this 27-year-old dude who still thinks of himself as a kid in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. I was making this trip to the big city to read this poem I wrote in front of a bunch of people I didn’t know,” he said via phone. 
James decided to check out the scene after watching the documentary Slam Nation and a few episodes of Def Poetry Jam on Netflix. 
“I drove two hours down to Pittsburgh with all my guns blazing and found this community who was really excited for me to part of their group,” James said. “I come from a town whose last census population was 504. I knew nobody who had a passion or interest for writing there. You go off to work in some blue-collar profession, and you don’t do anything creatively or artistically because there’s no practical use for that.”
He says he gravitated toward poetry for the same reason people write fiction or make music or theater. In fact, he kind of sees it as an intersection of many art forms. For a while, he toured with his friend’s band, except instead of playing music, he performed poetry. The audience was sometimes confused for the first 30 seconds but caught on quickly, as he was speaking about the same kinds of things the rock bands were singing about.
“[Slam poetry] has this fierceness that is really inspiring,” James said. “What drew me was this deep need to have somebody whose voice I could trust, telling me I wasn’t the only one going through the things I was going through, and that everything would be OK.”
Embracing slam
The first National Poetry Slam occurred in San Francisco in 1990. It’s the major team event for slam poetry, and outside this, there’s also the Individual World Poetry Slam, which began in 2004, and the Women of the World Poetry Slam, which began in 2008 and from which three of the 10 SFOD finalists had recently returned before vying for a Manchester team spot. All are organized by Poetry Slam, Inc. In 1990, three teams competed at the National Poetry Slam. In 2014, there were 72.
When SFOD began, there wasn’t a lot of material about slam poetry. There were maybe a handful of shows and events that would have really high-quality video, but it was hard to go online and Google something about slam because the information hadn’t yet been archived.
Today, you can find slam online easily. The most prominent media source is Button Poetry, a small organization in Minnesota that films major performances at major events. You know you’ve done well at an event if Button streams it online. The most popular performances have been seen more than 9 million times.
“There have been a couple of poets who’ve appeared on Button, and their poem went viral and they ended up on Good Morning America,” Palos said. “In terms of the way poetry spreads or becomes popular, things are very different from how they were 20 or 30 years ago.”
Today, there are publishing houses that embrace slam poetry, like Write Bloody Publishing (which named Manchester the best place to perform poetry in the world in an online poll a few years ago), Penmanship Books and University of Hell Press. There also exist online literary magazines and podcasts, which Mckendy Fils-Aime says he checks out regularly.
“Slam as a style has [expanded] because it’s gotten much more exposure, and also because people who started out in slam 12 years ago are now teaching. You have poetry slam being brought into high schools. … [Since] I moved here and [started] working at the door Thursday nights … I’ve noticed the number of under-21 attendees has at least doubled, if not more,” James said.
Creating interest
This year, SFOD judges chose Sam Rush, Emily Eastman, Christopher Clauss, Ellyn Touchette and Tim Hopkins to represent the organization at the National Poetry Slam this August. The final was held earlier this year to allow artists time to edit, polish or write new work.
Slam has seen its fair share of criticism since its start; much has to do with the idea of art being judged, while some have said the performance distracts from the words. But supporters say it’s created interest in the genre among young people.
“I grew up in this town. I remember there not being a place where I felt I had a platform to express myself in the way I wanted,” Eastman said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a slam and not heard at least one poem that changes the way I look at the world in a small way. … I think it’s wonderful we’ve managed to foster this community that’s so friendly and supportive.” 
As seen in the April 9, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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