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Poetry slam packed with popular themes

Dominique Ashaheed (left) and Ayinde Russell of Slam Nuba, the winning poetry slam team. Dominique Ashaheed (left) and Ayinde Russell of Slam Nuba, the winning poetry slam team. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Jeffrey Gantz
Globe Correspondent / August 15, 2011

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Are poetry slams popular? There were 1,200 folks on line to get into the Berklee Performance Center Saturday for the final night of the National Poetry Slam, which was making its first visit to Boston since 1992.

Back then, 16 teams took part; this year there were 75, nine of them from New England. Only four teams reached the finals: Providence Poetry Slam; Nuyorican Poets Cafe; Writing Wrongs from Columbus, Ohio; and Slam Nuba from Denver. Once everybody made it inside, the mood was more celebratory than competitive, with lots of hugging and acknowledging of fellow poets. The audience came in all sizes and shapes and ages and ethnicities, but it was uniformly loud; no vuvuzelas were necessary.

The format for the final bout was simple: four rounds, each team presenting one 3-minute poem per round, mostly solos, though group pieces were permitted. The five judges, in keeping with the democratic spirit of the poetry slam, were chosen from the audience; the high and low scores were thrown out and the middle three totaled for each poem. The scale runs from 0 to 10, but the finals judges mostly confined themselves to the 8.5-9.5 range. And though the audience can in theory boo any score it disagrees with, at Berklee the low scores were booed and the high ones cheered, and there were many standing ovations.

What makes a slam poem - a kind of cross between traditional written poetry and stand-up comedy-commentary - is the performance, the cadence that sculpts prose into poetic form, the attitude that keeps audience members on the edge of their seats. There were no bobbles in this area. Political and social commentary dominated the subject matter: the cola commercialization of Korean pop idols (“High-fructose corn syrup is my boyfriend’’), fashion design’s rejection of “round women’’ (“Mr. Lagerfeld, is it so much easier to make us monsters than to simply make us dresses?’’), and virtual reality (“I’m making love to my wife, I hope she’s logged in’’). Ranting and raving was the order of the evening, though in “My Town,’’ Writing Wrongs’ William Evans offered wistful regret (“My town thinks progress is a one-way Greyhound to another town’’; “My town is a sunset that everyone is an hour late for’’) that would have read as well on paper as it sounded on stage.

In the end, the judges went for politics, awarding the trophy to Slam Nuba, whose topics had ranged from Mississippi chain gangs as a replacement for slavery to why we bombed Nagasaki and not Kyoto, and whose performances included a lot of singing. But the festive exuberance with which all four teams finally gathered on stage underscored the NPS motto that “the points are not the point, the point is poetry.’’ Point taken.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

NATIONAL POETRY SLAM FINALS

At: Berklee Performance Center, Saturday night