Instead of the caged bird, it is the caged word that sings in slam poetry. At least, this was the case at this week’s Providence Poetry Slam Semifinals, where the raw, poignant emotion of nine competing poets filled the intimate performance space.
Laura Brown-Lavoie ’10.5 organized and emceed Wednesday night’s slam. A prominent spoken word artist both in Providence and nationally, she competed in the final round of the National Poetry Slam in 2011 and in the Women of the World Poetry Slam in 2013.
As an undergraduate, Brown-Lavoie was involved with WORD!, the Brown-Rhode Island School of Deisgn spoken word group. She was also one of the first students selected — through a slam competition hosted by WORD! — to compete in the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, she said.
Brown-Lavoie said spoken word led her to slam, adding that the difference between the two is minor but often confused. Slam describes the competition during which spoken word is performed.
“Slam is just a really specific game that, in my mind, was invented to get people into a room and listen to poetry all night. Spoken word is a much bigger category of people expressing themselves out loud,” she said.
The Providence Poetry Slam took place at AS220, a nonprofit community arts center in downtown Providence. The vibrant performance space appeared especially imaginative against the archetypal backdrop of its red velvet curtain — candy cane stripes of glitter paint, which scintillate in the soft incandescent lighting, transform black pillars from austere to whimsical. A broken analog clock rests on a ledge, the word “SPACE” scrawled across its face, the time stopped at 4:20.
In the minutes leading up to the slam, the atmosphere vibrates with a nervous, kinetic energy. Several of the upcoming poets frenetically prepare for the performance — some fill notebook pages with poems transcribed from memory while others mutter lines under their breath, eyes scrunched in concentration.
The semifinals consist of three elimination rounds, which reduce the nine initial competitors to five. The remaining poets continue on to a second night of semifinals, which determines who will compete on the finals stage.
The averaged scores of five audience judges, excluding the highest and lowest, determine which competitors will be eliminated. After each poem, the judges raise dry-erase boards to indicate their scores and Brown-Lavoie announces the numbers from lowest to highest.
The stakes of the competition heighten as the night progresses — the audience grows steadily rowdier in response to the judges’ scores. Applause and enthusiastic yelps of agreement accompany the high scores. Lower scores often incite a chorus of boos — punctuated by the occasional expletive — directed at the judges.
This interactive energy separates slam poetry from its written counterpart. It removes the buffer between the writer and the reader, thrusting the poem out of the traditional bounds of paper and ink and into the raw immediacy of the three-dimensional world.
Brown-Lavoie said this immediacy is part of the reason why she fell in love with spoken word. “I’ve always loved writing, but I think I became a performer, because I found that it’s a moment of really intense communion and connection with people,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for instant gratification between the act of writing and the thrill of being understood.”
This makes spoken word particularly appealing to young people, she said, adding that she hopes it will spark an appreciation of poetry students might not find in the classroom.
“They grow up spending more time interfacing with YouTube and other digital media rather than books, so spoken word is a pretty awesome opportunity to make poetry part of peoples’ everyday lives,” she said.
Multiple Providence venues are seeking to do just that. AS220 hosts a poetry slam on the first and third Thursdays of every month. GotPoetry Live! hosts an open mic at Blue State every Tuesday night. New Urban Arts, a community studio space on Westminster Street, serves as a “hub of connection” between older and younger artists, Brown-Lavoie said, adding that there are many Brown and RISD students who mentor younger artists through the program.
The “democratic nature” of open mic is especially important in cultivating diverse perspectives and styles, Brown-Lavoie said, adding that she encourages Brown students to participate in open mic nights off College Hill.
Jesse Gumbiner ’15, a member of the team that made it to last year’s CUPSI semifinals, said the performance aspect of spoken word appealed to his acting instincts. “Rather than playing someone else, you’re playing yourself for others. You write something you feel a lot about, feel very emotional about, and you get up onstage, essentially trying to not act but still, in a sense, performing,” he said.
In addition to memorizing the lines, the speaker must also attend to certain physical elements of performance, such as projection, stage presence and meter, he added.
“You’re trying to be completely in control of yourself while completely letting go of yourself,” he said, adding that the personal nature of poetry can make this detachment a considerable challenge.
“Performance poetry creates these opportunities for really different people with different backgrounds and different ways of experiencing the world to miraculously empathize with each other’s situations, to come out wiser,” Brown-Lavoie said.
“No person is more or less qualified as a poet than anyone else,” she said. “There’s no hierarchy of what counts as art.”
The ethos of community found in open mic may seem incompatible with the competitive element of a slam event like the AS220 semifinals. But Gumbiner explained that this is only partially true.
“It’s a competition in terms of how you plan for it — having several backup poems just in case you need one for a certain mood or audience, structuring the steps so you get the best poem going at best time,” he said. “But this is not to say we weren’t competing in a supportive environment. When people are pouring their hearts out on stage, you’d better be clapping and cheering for them — and that’s the best part.”
A previous version of this article mischaracterized the poetry night hosted at Blue State every Tuesday. It is an open mic, not a poetry slam. The article also misspelled the name of the group that hosts the open mic. It is GotPoetry Live!, not GoPoetry Live. The Herald regrets the errors.