Vermont’s Poetry Slam Scene

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(Host) It’s called “Slam Poetry” but to commentator Nick Boke, it’s the poetry part that counts.

Poetry. The word connotes a solitary reader enveloped by a subdued and musing stillness. But to think about poetry exclusively in this way is to miss its point. Whether we’re talking John Keats or Garcia Lorca or Mary Oliver, the good stuff is anything but subdued or musing or still. It knocks your sox off.

So, with this in mind, you may want to check out Vermont’s burgeoning Slam Poetry Scene. If you winced when I said ‘Slam Poetry’ just now, you may have heard something somewhere about these events and they may sound just a bit too boisterous, too… well, too unpoetic for your tastes. But if you show up at 8:00 p.m. at the Rhombus Gallery at 186 College Street in Burlington on the first or third Friday night of the month, or at any of several other Vermont slams, you’ll encounter poetry in whole new way. Whether the topic is new-found love, September 11 or raccoons in a cornfield, you’ll be treated to a lot more than just well-crafted words. This is performance poetry. This is poetry delivered with attitude. Slam poets read or recite with a fervor and an energy we’re not accustomed to.

The poets? There might be a UVM lit major, a retired machine tool worker, a high school freshman, a gourmet chef, and one of Vermont’s well-known and well-loved poets like slam regular Geof Hewitt.

And then there’s the competition part. Twelve poets each perform one poem less than three minutes long. They’re scored by five judges selected at random from the audience. The first poet is called to the stage. He may unfold a tattered sheet of paper, look up, and say, “I haven’t done this before, so I’m sorta nervous.” Or she may open a published collection, peruse the audience, and begin with a flourish.

When the poet finishes, the audience bursts into applause. Slam mistress Kim Jordan takes the stage and banters about the next slam, about the national competition, whatever the point is to give the judges time before calling out, “Judges, raise your score cards!” “9.1,” she’ reads, and the audience claps and cheers. “7.5,” and the audience boos, deriding a low score. When it’s over, the slam leader calls out, “Applaud the poet!” and everyone does, with enthusiasm. The top six scorers each read a second poem. Finally, the prizes: maybe ten dollars for the winner, five for second place and three for third, depending on the take at the door.

Slam Master Seth Jarvis calls slam poetry “competitive performance poetry judged by a representative democracy of your peers.” It’s also a great chance to hear some very good as well as some yet-to-be-good poetry from great poets, good poets, and still-working-on-it poets.

This is Nick Boke in Weathersfield, Vermont.

Learn more about poetry slams in Vermont.

Nick Boke is a reading consultant, minister and freelance writer.

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