Ben Williams
Ben Williams gave a dramatic delivery. Photos by Susan Safford

Poets pull no punches

By Pat Waring - March 29, 2007

Is the Island ready for slam poetry? The question was answered loud and clear Saturday night at Che's Lounge, articulately as the rat-a-tat-tat, soar and swoop, wail and whisper of the 11 contestants in the Island's first-ever poetry slam. The crowd of more than 100, many of them students, stood shoulder to shoulder, cheek by jowl, jamming the new off-Main Street Vineyard Haven café, spilling out into the courtyard where they socialized, tried to catch a few words from inside, and quipped about the need for outdoor speakers.

"I'm a slam virgin," admitted Dan Waters, the usually distinguished Poet Laureate of West Tisbury who, despite his unfamiliarity with the tradition, later emerged as the adult first-place winner.

Slam, a free-wheeling competitive poetry genre, began in a Chicago club in 1984 and got its name two years later, said Mr. Waters. It is now practiced frequently, especially in cities and college towns, and a nationwide competition is held each summer. Slam, he said, circumvents the barrier of publication and brings poems directly to the audience, returning to the earliest traditions when poetry was delivered by wandering bards, a spoken-word art form.

Andrew Larsen
Andrew Larsen, crowd pleaser.

Saturday's high energy, standing-room-only competition took its spark from the enthusiasm of several Martha's Vineyard Regional High School poets who, last fall, took part in a reading in West Tisbury. Their spirit caught the attention of Mr. Waters who said that having younger poets present at the event brought new vitality. "It was one generation talking to another," he said, "people didn't want to stop." He spoke with high school English teacher (and poet himself) Dan Sharkovitz, and they joined with other poets, students, teachers, and library representatives to create this multi-age event.

Slam is a no-holds-barred competition, Mr. Waters said, without limits on subject matter or style, and emphasizing performance along with content. Only time is regulated - three minutes for each contestant, with a jingle of keys signifying "time's up."

The word slam suggests violence and mayhem, but Saturday's audience members were in no danger of bodily harm, though words and emotions were ricocheting through the room like gunshot volleys or monsoon rains. Much more in danger, perhaps, were closed minds, fixed attitudes, or preconceptions of poetry, none of which would long endure in this outspoken climate. Audience members were also in danger of being chosen as judges, selected randomly by having a strip of duct tape under their chairs. The chosen five, this writer among them, accepted their responsibility gamely but reluctantly, especially after learning that according to the rules the audience could protest their decisions.

Judging was Olympic style, cards with numbers from one to 10 raised for each contestant. Left largely to their own devices, judges were told to rate on merits of poetry, performance, "and anything else" they might deem important.

Domonique Aaron
Domonique Aaron spoke from the heart.

A number of the usual poetry suspects - familiar Island writers including Donald Nitchie, John Maloney, Justen Ahrens, Fan Ogilvie - were on hand, some to read at the open mic before the contest, all to support and cheer on this new generation of poets.

The smoky aroma of espresso wafted from the coffee bar, well stocked with pastries and snacks, although few had time to sip or sample in the midst of the intense proceedings.

Student poet Domonique Aaron bravely stepped up to open the slam, and opened her heart to the crowd with a musing on lost love. Jessica Seidman's images were eerie and striking, surrealistic visions. There was Ben Williams, the second-prize winner, his twining phrases of witty disillusionment delivered in a tortured tenor, enhanced by elegant hand gestures - "We hide the facts like Schindler's List and - what's the quotation? - ignorance is bliss."

First-place Andrew Larsen stood sturdy and straight-on, spitting out his intricate images with a workmanlike force. Alyssa Maveety, with a reserved and thoughtful look, evoked the feelings of an outcast teenager, yearning for acceptance in her poem, "The Nobody." She came away with third prize.

Tilmon Dubos
Tilmon Dubos, aka "Peace of Mind."

"You guys rocked!" said Paul Murray before taking his turn as opener of the adult competition. After a disclaimer that he usually writes serious, formal poetry, Mr. Murray launched into examples of his other specialty, hilariously crafted verses for young readers, among them "Why is Farting so Bad?" One could easily envision the 12-year-olds giggling.

Tilmon Dubos, performing as "Peace of Mind," praised the assemblage of poets and the café itself - "This is like a little touch of New York" - before launching into his creation: "How do I feel? I feel with my hands....I feel with my heart as well."

Michael West's autobiographical "Talkin' Disillusion Blues" had a sardonic Dylanesque edge, tying him for second place, along with M.C. Random B. who delivered a tight, jazzy and stylish performance. In Dan Sharkovitz's piece he was the impassioned professor, overwhelmed with facts, struggling to connect. Dan Waters with his honeyed intonations, the reflections of a winter Islander about summer and its frustrations, brought down the house. Every image - however irreverent - was perfect, reminding us why he is a poet laureate.

Linda Black sat off to the side on a loveseat during the proceedings, eyes sometimes closed, nodding her head and smiling at the poetic creativity blossoming in the room. An accomplished performance poet, Ms. Black provided inspiration as she took the floor earlier in the evening, delivering an electrifying rendition of her "Stone Angels," violent yet shining images, a driving rhythm that threatened to burst into melody.

Linda Black
Linda Black set the tone.

Though slam tradition more often calls for prizes like Twinkies, motor oil, and boxes of macaroni and cheese, according to Mr. Waters, this evening's winners happily went home with books and journals courtesy of Bunch of Grapes bookstore and Edgartown Books.

A new Island tradition was born on Saturday night. The next poetry slam is scheduled for April 28, 7 pm at Che's Lounge. Now the question is no longer whether audiences are ready, it's will they fit?