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National slam poetry competition comes to town

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By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / August 5, 2011

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They come to declaim.

The Boston area will be the center of the slam poetry world next week, as the National Poetry Slam 2011 hits town beginning Tuesday. More than 300 poets on 76 teams from all over the country and beyond will compete for $2,000, a trophy, and the glory. Teams from two Cambridge slam venues, the Cantab Lounge and Lizard Lounge, will represent the host city in the competition.

“Having the nationals here, we hope, means an enormous chance to energize the scene and reach a listenership that we’ve never had before,’’ says Simone Beaubien, slam master at the Cantab and host city director of the national event this year. “It doesn’t just mean we have more audience after the national slam has left. It also means we get more writers, we reach more artists - just get more people involved in poetry who never thought they would be.’’

The beauty of the slam - and its challenge - is that for three minutes, it’s just you and your poem and the microphone, say Boston-area competitors. While there’s a strong vein of progressive politics, the content tends toward the personal, with family issues, identity, love, and sex atop the list.

“I write about what I know and what I feel and what I can relate to, because it’s sort of like therapy to me,’’ says Carrie Rudzinski of Charlestown, a poet on the team from the Cantab. “It’s cathartic. I realize a lot of stuff by having to write it out and say it to a group of strangers.’’

For her that means coming to terms with family relationships, falling in love and breakups, and feeling used at her job.

When Lizard Lounge team member Jamele “Harlym125’’ Adams, 37, of Natick talks about his own poetry, he starts to find a rhythm, like a poem taking shape:

“I’m a young king, that comes from a queen, that was a single mother from Harlem, N.Y., first one to go to college, got a whole lot of life experience to draw off of, to create the poems that I share with people,’’ Adams says.

“I live, I love, I laugh, I travel. I appreciate the good things in life, I appreciate the challenges. I love my career, I love being married, I love my children. All of those things find their way into my poetry. It’s beautiful.’’

The Cantab, the Lizard Lounge, and several other venues in Cambridge and Boston will host preliminary bouts Tuesday through Thursday. The 20 highest-scoring teams will head into semifinal bouts on Aug. 12 at the Middle East, the Brattle Theatre, and the Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre. The winners of those four events will head to the big showdown at the Berklee Performance Center on Aug. 13.

Slam poetry began in Chicago in the mid-1980s and quickly spread in the ’90s. In poetry slams, poets recite their work in bars and coffeehouses and are scored by a panel of judges chosen from the audience. Organizers circulate through the crowd before the performance, seeking judges who don’t know the performers. That can be difficult, though.

“Often at the Cantab I state from the stage that the only criteria is that you’re not sleeping with any of the poets, or that if you are, you be sleeping with all of them,’’ Beaubien says.

Poetry Slam Inc., the nonprofit formed in the 1990s to organize the slam system, has certain qualifications a venue must meet to send a team to the nationals, including an average attendance of more than 30 people. This year 76 venues are sending teams out of more than 100 that are certified. (The Cantab team is formally known as The Boston Poetry Slam.)

Besides the Cantab and the Lizard Lounge teams, other area groups competing include Slam Free or Die from Manchester, N.H.; the Hampshire County Slam Collective from Amherst; the Mill City Slam from Lowell; and teams from Worcester, Providence, and Portland, Maine

The event has come a long way from the last national slam held in Boston, way back in 1992, when a team based at the Cantab won the whole thing. Poet and playwright Richard Cambridge, 62, of Cambridge, was on that winning team and still follows the scene, although he no longer competes.

“[Slams are] one of the few places that is giving voice to people who have no voice,’’ Cambridge says. “The politics are definitely progressive, and it’s very ecumenical. It doesn’t matter who you are or what’s after your name. People just sort of welcome you, and when you get up there to read your poem, people are really rooting for you.’’

Beaubien says that in the last 20 years, poetry slams have become much better established, and people are making slam poetry their chosen art form.

“It’s been established to a point that we’re not totally underground,’’ Beaubien says. “People understand we’re not all wearing berets and hitting bongos, although some of us still are.’’

Modern Theatre season The fall season for the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University features Robert Brustein’s “Mortal Terror,’’ the second play in a trilogy about William Shakespeare’s life by Brustein, now a distinguished scholar in residence at Suffolk. Running Sept. 15-Oct. 2, “Mortal Terror’’ is directed by Daniela Varon and co-produced with Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. The cast includes Stafford Clark-Price, Ken Cheeseman, and John Kuntz. Related events include a Sept. 23 “Shakespeare in America’’ discussion with Brustein and artistic directors Oskar Eustis of New York’s Public Theater and Jenny Gersten of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, plus a screening of Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth,’’ date to be announced.

Other performances at the Modern include sound artist Robert Hampson’s “MAIN’’ on Oct. 15, co-produced with Goethe-Institut Boston and the experimental and new music series Non-Event; Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus’’ Nov. 17-20, directed by David R. Gammons with a cast of Suffolk theater students; and an evening of flamenco from Madrid’s Casa Patas on Nov. 29. Brustein returns to the stage Oct. 6, this time for a conversation with playwright Christopher Durang, and there’s a celebration of the poet David Ferry on Dec. 1.

Other film events are a screening of “The Jazz Singer’’ on Oct. 18 to celebrate the first anniversary of the restoration of the Modern, where the pioneering talkie had its Boston premiere in 1928, and a screening of Frank Christopher’s documentary “Dead Reckoning - Champlain in America’’ on Oct. 25, featuring a conversation with the director. Tickets to “Mortal Terror’’: 866-811-4111, www.moderntheatre.com. Tickets for all other events go on sale Sept. 1.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

NATIONAL POETRY SLAM

Presented by Boston Poetry Slam in conjunction with Poetry Slam Inc. At: various venues in Cambridge and Boston, Tuesday through Aug. 13. Tournament passes $50-$75, single event tickets $5-25 at the door. www.nps2011.com