Friday, January 06, 2006

Below is an article in the Living/Arts Section of the Globe about the Lizard Lounge and Slam Poetry. Also is Susie Davidson's response in a letter to the Globe, and an interesting discussion with Poet Charles Coe concerning their differing views of Slam vs. Conventional venues.

> The scene is slamming Performance poetry is no longer just an underground art form> > By Ethan Gilsdorf, Globe Correspondent January 4, 2006>

CAMBRIDGE -- Under the Lizard Lounge's amber lights, local poet Eric Darby mixes a verbal cocktail, one part politics, one part personal> experience.> ''What would Jesus drive?" Darby recites from memory as his> three-minute explosive rant about SUVs and religion spills over the> standing-room-only house.> Darby is one of two finalists at this night's poetry slam. He's> competing against Erich Hagan, another talented poet, whose wordplay takes> a different tack.> ''Just hoping to feel necessary," Hagan implores in his tender yet> violent love poem. Both poets receive roars from the mixed-race, multi-age> crowd. After the judges' scores are tallied, Darby wins the night. Which> makes sense, considering he happens to be ranked seventh out of some 500> slam poets nationwide.> The Lizard Lounge may be below street level, but battling> head-to-head with words isn't an underground movement anymore. Whether you> call it performance poetry, slam or spoken word, this literary art is> definitely necessary.> After sharpening its cutting edge on a generation of young poets in> the late '80s and early '90s, spoken word is big again. In Boston, slam> just spawned a new record label and a poetry school. Throughout New> England, spoken word has made significant inroads among academia and into> the suburbs. Slam celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, fully matured> and exerting a stronger influence on the area's cultural scene than ever> before.> ''It's not a novelty anymore," says Jeff Robinson, bandleader and> founder of the Lizard Lounge Poetry Jam, a weekly open-mike slam. In> February, Robinson, his co-host Joyce Cunha, and his jazz trio will mark> nine years of Sunday nights backing up poets in the basement of the> Cambridge nightclub. ''It's here to stay."> Robinson, who also hosts the biweekly radio show ''Poetry Jam" on> WMBR-FM (88.1), launched two important ventures this winter that should> help keep Boston at the hub of the poetry map: a spoken-word label, Poetry> Jam Records, and a teaching venture called the Online School of Poetry,> which begins classes tomorrow.> ''By no means is this a 'slam institution.' Quite the contrary,"> says Robinson, who is 40. His school's teachers may have cut their teeth> in seedy bars, not the halls of academia, but courses like ''Music,> Mythography and Words," with the likes of Patricia Smith and Regie Gibson,> will emphasize more than just high-scoring slam technique. ''Both are very> good page poets who happen to perform well, but they will touch on> performance when the time is right."> Until recently, Robinson would have had to convince more doubters> that writing a good ''slam poem" isn't easy. Spoken-word artists have been> less respected than traditional poets. But the second-class status of slam> is changing.> ''It's different now," says Michael Brown, 65, a Mount Ida College> professor of communication widely credited with bringing slam from Chicago> to Boston 15 years ago with Smith (who is a former Globe columnist). He> was ''slammaster" at Cambridge's other well-regarded spoken-word venue,> the Cantab Lounge, from 1992 to 2004. His ''Dr. Brown's Traveling Poetry> Show" now runs Tuesdays at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Inman Square.> ''It used to be hot in here, the atmosphere," Brown says, hanging> out at the Cantab one Wednesday night. ''Now the atmosphere is less hot> but the poetry is better." Unlike a decade ago, he says, younger writers> today have more interesting things to say. Poets are more skilled, their> writing more biting, and their audiences more discerning.> For its part, the Cantab keeps nurturing newcomers. The night Brown> visits his old haunts, a woman named Gina, dressed in tight black clothes> and a sparkling sash, takes the stage.> ''If you can believe it," Gina tells the audience in the malodorous> basement, ''I have worked as a stripper. I can dance around naked. But I'm> terrified to read my poems." The crowd goes easy on her.> The reason a former stripper might risk literary humiliation is> simple: Spoken word is less risque than before. Slams are now found in> elementary schools, teen writing programs, and working-class areas like> Brockton and South Boston. It has infiltrated all walks of life, spreading> from urban centers to places like Providence, Lowell, New Haven,> Burlington, Vt., and even Nantucket.> ''There's been a resurgence lately," says Simone Beaubien, host of> the Cantab's series, which attracts between 50 and 100 spectators each> week. ''I don't know why but I'm not complaining." One explanation is> increased activity: Beaubien organizes a regional slam ''league" among> teams from Boston, Portland, Worcester, and Providence that she's> continuing this winter and expanding to six teams. Adding to the Cantab's> luster is local star Darby, who on Dec. 14 won the right to represent the> Cantab at the Individual World Poetry Slam in Charlotte, N.C., this> February. ''This year is the best we've done since 2000," says Beaubien.> ''It's exciting."> Another ''why" is visibility. Boston slammers reach beyond New> England and have competed in the National Poetry Slam and Individual World> Poetry Slam every year since 1992. Last summer, at the nationals,> Robinson's Lizard Lounge squad came in 16th out of 70 teams. This month,> the Lizard Lounge begins slamming to build its team of poets for 2006> nationals. Anyone can compete. The infrastructure is in place for spoken> word to keep speaking to a new generation.> ''This particular medium seems to be an extremely long-lasting one,"> says Jonathan Wolf, 24, who is the ''slammaster" for Worcester's Poetry> Asylum, a 15-year-old organization. ''With a rich history and grass-roots> involvement, I can't imagine the idea ever being unviable."> That people now expect more than 20-something angst or political> screed from slam has been part of spoken word's maturation as a real art> form. The final hurdle was to convince academia.> Once, a rift existed between two camps -- poet-professors and their> students on one side, and those who ''yell and wave, the wildly> gesticulating types" on the other, as Cantab veteran Adam Stone, 28, of> Somerville puts it. Today there is a two-way bridge, especially in Boston.> Not only have slam poets benefited from more professional training, but> university literature students now read slam-type poems in anthologies.> Meanwhile, their prize-winning poet teachers have jazzed up their> performances with more rhythmic language and lively deliveries.> ''I think the twain are meeting more and more on campus, both> outside the classroom and in the classroom," says Sue Standing, a Wheaton> College English professor and poet. ''The academics have taken on some of> slam's groove and attitude." Standing uses poetry textbooks like ''From> Totems to Hip-Hop" and says students at her suburban campus have organized> their own slams.> Robinson's Online School of Poetry further blurs the academic/slam> divide. For his faculty, Robinson snagged former poet laureate of> California and American Book Award winner Quincy Troupe, a dread-locked> poet known for his powerful, melodic delivery. In September, Troupe> visited Cambridge's Hi-N-Dry Studio, the legendary home base for the band> Morphine, where he spent a highly charged evening recording live with> Robinson's trio and several other spoken word poets -- Askia Toure,> Richard Cambridge, Iyeoka Okoawo, and Patricia Smith. The session will be> the debut release on Robinson's Poetry Jam Records.> During a break between sets, Troupe muses how slam, rap, and hip-hop> have kept the craft vibrant. ''There are some intriguing rhythms that you> can bring into poetry," says Troupe, who is 65 but seems younger. ''You> gotta be a big sponge." All poetry has to be written well, he says, but> working with a live band adds a final, improvisational layer that lets him> weave his ''linguistic gymnastics" around the music.> Then Troupe sits back to hear Okoawo, who is representing the Lizard> Lounge at the Individual World Poetry Slam in February.> ''I want to believe that everything happens for a reason," Okoawo> pleads in a raw poem -- part speech, part song, part sermon. Her body> shimmies as each line rises to the surface. ''What reason comes from Ritas> and Katrinas? All of what we think we know can all end abruptly.">

<> > > There is a "slam rift" between local poets, too> > There exists another, longstanding divergence of opinion besides the> one between poet-professors and slam poets ("The scene is slamming," Jan.> 4, F1). In 1992, when Brown and Smith brought the slam to the venerable> Stone Soup Poetry forum at T.T. the Bear's Place in Cambridge, both the> host, Jack Powers, and a large camp of local poets, who included myself,> just did not feel right about the phenomenon. We have continued to shun> competitive poetry ever since. Now, as then, we feel that the competitive> format can both discourage quality work and detrimentally affect the> fragile artistic egos that are part and parcel of writers. The fact that a> randomly-chosen team of "judges" (who are often spectators with no poetry> background) has the power to inflict these possible repercussions adds to> the unreality of the situation. Back then, we referred to ourselves as> "PUNS - Poets United, Not Slammed."> Jack Powers didn't like what he saw in this scene and what it did to> his poets, who were by nature more supportive than competitive, and what> it did to the poetry he saw performed. He asked them to leave the venue,> and they relocated to Booksellers' in Porter Square and ultimately to the> Cantab, where the rodeo-type atmosphere was more conducive to what they> do. Stone Soup remains a noncompetitive venue which meets every Monday> evening at Out of the Blue Gallery in Central Square, Cambridge.> I say, here's to the Word in its purest form - not its contrived,> theatrical, cutthroat variant.> SUSIE DAVIDSON> Brookline> > Susie Davidson> 19 Winchester St. #806> Brookline, MA 02446> 617-566-7557

> Susie,> > I'm glad you sent that letter to the Globe. You make some important> points. > > I wasn't at any of the Stone Soup events the slam poets started attending,> but I think Jack was 100 percent right in asking that they find another> venue. I really do feel that slam and the more conventional approach to> speaking/reading poetry are ultimately incompatible. I attended a few> slams some years back and quickly realized that it wasn't for me. > > However, I took take issue with some of your letter. Specifically, I think> it's unfortunate that you describe slam as "contrived, theatrical, and> cutthroat." There are a lot of decent, well-meaning, generous people who> participate in that culture, and I don't think you're being fair to them.> Too often, people who feel passionately about their art (as you clearly> do) approach it almost like religious fundamentalists who claim to have> the "truth" and decry others as infidels. > > I personally made peace with the slam culture; by that I mean that yes, I> have a visceral, negative reaction to it. But I realize that reaction> reflects my personal esthetic--it doesn't represent some esthetic Law of> the Universe proving that my position's the "right" one. > > Let the slammers go their way, and folks like us go ours. After all, other> art forms a tremendous range of tastes and styles--everything from> Beethoven to Black-Eyed Peas--can peacefully co-exist. Why should poetry> be any different?>

> Respectfully,> Charles Coe>

Charles:You're right, I don't mean to condemn, and of course, I don't go to them. But I've never been much of a passive objector, and I especially feel that it's important in a huge public forum like the Globe to state the other side, lest everyone reading think that slams are accepted by basically all poets. The competitition aspect is important enough to me that I do speak out against it. As Billy Bragg says, wherever you see injustice, you have to speak out. OK, the slam is not racism or bigotry or exploitation (well, maybe a little), but competition isn't cool, and who knows what receiving a "2" might do to an emerging and sensitive would-be poet (I saw more than a few cases of very crushed egos where I had to reassure poet friends that their work was worthy, back then).Thanks again for your reasoned discussion - I think if it continues tho we should take it off-list so as not to bombard these other folks here - unless any of them contribute.Thanks again!SusieSubject: RE: my letter sent to Globe this a.m.Susie,I hear what you're saying. And my experience with/opinion of slams is prettymuch the same as yours.But again I gotta say, "If you don't like slams, DON'T GO TO THEM." I don'tknow what purpose is served by publicly, and categorically, condemning otherartists...Charles> > > Thanks Charles. I hear you, and I'm sure there are plenty of nice, quiet,> nonjudgmental folks who attend and participate in slams. However, my own> experiences have just been too revealingly similar for me to not maintain> my overall anti-slam position. If it isn't the judging of art, then it's> the contrived performing and content, and then it's the roar of the> cheering and heckling, which is just deafening, if not high-school> cheerleaderish. The whole thing just ain't poetry to me, but more of a> Colloseum-type event.> Sorry to rush, but off to Florida for the weekend (SORRY!).>


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Poetry Workshop With Doug Holder

Doug Holder, the founder of Somerville's "Ibbetson Street Press,"
Arts/Editor for "The Somerville News," and director of the "Newton Free Library Poetry Series," will be conducting individual poetry workshops for novice poets. I will workshop your poems , with attention to language, metaphor, and imagery. I will aslo provide tips for publication, and an introduction to the world of small press literary magazines, publishers and editors. This course is perfect for the poet who wants to get his "feet wet,"
as he or she first ventures into the choppy waters of the poetry world. Many of my former students have gone on to publish for the first time, participated in reading series, started their own magazines, entered graduate school, etc... Rates are reasonable.

I will also will be trying to form a group workshop that would meet every other Sunday at 1PM. Please call 617-628-2313 for further info. or email me at

Doug Holder's poetry and articles have appeared in "The Boston Globe," "DoubleTake," "America's Favorite Poems,"(Anthology) "Main Street Rag,"
"American Poetry Monthly," "City of Poets: 18 Boston Voices," (Anthology),
"The Harvard Mosaic," "Stuff," "Arts Around Boston," "COMPOST," "The Boston Poet," and many other publications. His taped interviews with contemporary poets are archived at Harvard and Buffalo Universities. He is the co-founder of "The Somerville News Writers Festival," and is on the board of directors of the "Wilderness House Literary Retreat." He is the former president of "Stone Soup Poets," in Boston, Mass., and holds an M.A. in Literature from Harvard University.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Marc Widershien--founder of "Poplar Editions," and author of poetry collection "Poems of Survival"

Well, guys there is a new press in town "Poplar Editions," founded by Ibbetson author Marc Widershien "The Life of All Worlds" ( Ibbetson 2001) Marc is releasing the first book from this spanking new press, his own, "Poems of Survival." Marc tells me he has plans to publishes several titles, including an anthology by senior citizen poets who attend his state-wide seminars, as well as an anthology of participants from his Emack and Bolio Series in Roslindale. To find out more about Marc go to Marc Widershien, founder of "Poplar Editions."

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Glassblowers Tale
By Joanne McFarland
Review by Matt Rosenthal

ISBN: 0-9774245-0-2
Copyright 2005 Joanne McFarland

Published by;
Gold Leaf Books
543 Union St. Studio B
Brooklyn, New York 11215

In the Glassblower’s Tale, Joanne McFarland paints, in vivid hues, the rainbow of emotional states between hope and despair. Her palette consists of many human body and bodily function images that tie the emotions to the earth. Many voices from 1st person to 3rd are employed to give each experience its appropriate saliency.

The main themes of the book are best illuminated through some of its greatest one-liners…
"in a legendless universe…
danger was more magnificent that art." (burial ground)
"Where hope is meaner than hate" (tides)
"The draw to ruin is strong in us.
We love parts-stories" (burial ground)
"We measure loss by what remains" (hunger)

The spaces between hope and despair in Ms. McFarland’s poems are filled with themes of loss, desire, passion, hunger, survival, abuse, and perseverance. Often several of these themes are woven into one poem, and the body images are most poignantly used to convey them. This is the case in "Somewhere Not Here".

A man hurls grains of rice,
as his wife prays the rains will come.
slowly he moves forward,
a wound in sere landscape,
right arm flinging pieces of the future.
She kneels outside their hut.
Inside, life darts without pattern –
boy, girl, bigger girl.
Last year they were lucky,
the rains came just when they should,
chapters in a lush book.

A sky saturated with clouds hangs prescient,
Cloth languishes between legs hungry
for a breeze. The man snaking
through the field, feeding it
every mouthful spared.

Lines like:
"right arm flinging pieces of the future", "legs hungry for a breeze" and "feeding it every mouthful spared"
convey the themes of perseverance, need, hope and hunger better than any of the poem’s other lines. In essence, Ms. McFarland makes the body the vessel of emotional expression.
In concert with these images she uses contrasting viewpoints to illustrate emotional counter tensions. In "The Guild", three sections, or voices, comprise the poem. They are: The Apprentice, The Journeyman and The Master. Issues are handled, once again, employing bodily function.

The Apprentice proclaims:

"Even the news of poisonings doesn’t frighten me; or word of men, marooned in space without nourishment, watching as the Earth rotates in its toxins. I am still eager to be fed".
Here the Apprentice wants to consume the world. The function of eating conveys ambition.

The Master says:
"Let me smell the last thing you ate, then taste it as my tongue penetrates where your songs begin;"
Here the image of consuming is converted to Pygmalion production, where the Masters tongue (his teaching) turns the Apprentice’s tongue to song.
Finally, the last line of "The Guild"ends on a phoenix like note of hope springing from resignation.
"…my own scent of ashes flavoring this crevice of the world where finally, finally, we have found each other".
And in the end, The Glassblower’s Tale is at its best when hope and despair have found each other.

Matt Rosenthal is a member of the "Bagel Bards" that meets each Saturday at 9 AM at Finagle-A-Bagel in Harvard Square.