March 14, 2003page 15 of 26

Slam poetry champ Smith brings fresh, lively style to town

By Jennifer Lee
Staff Writer
March 14, 2003

Patricia Smith, From her poem "Undertaker"

If you were one of the many people who weren't able to get a ticket to the first Poetry at Tech event this past October-which featured U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, the Bourne Poetry Chair at Tech, Thomas Lux, and other nationally-known poets-because it was sold out, then you'll be pleased to hear that there's another event coming up on Monday, March 24, at 7 p.m.

This time, Ginger Murchison wants you to know: "It's totally free-no tickets, no reservations! It's important to say that," she motioned to me when I interviewed her. "The Ferst Theater really messed us up, because now people have the idea that they have to have tickets for our poetry events."

And if you had no idea what the Poetry at Tech series is, then, well, here's your chance to find out what it's all about.

However, if you want a seat, you may have to get there early. So far, all the previous poetry events, including the reading in the fall and a smaller one last February that took place in the Clary Theater, were packed. Murchison, who works as assistant to Thomas Lux and who also does most of the organizational work in planning the Poetry at Tech events, said, "Poets really like for the place to be overflowing. Then the audience puts an energy into the room that the poets really like." She added with a laugh, "So maybe we'll always underbook the room."

In the case of the March 24th event, the venue will be the 14th Street Playhouse, which holds about 450 people. It will be the third installment of the Poetry at Tech series, and this time Patricia Smith, a four-time National Grand Slam Champion, will be performing, along with a band, Bop Thunderous.

"Among slammers, she's a household name," said Murchison. "She's a hot ticket; they know who she is like rock people know Madonna."

"She's a wonderful poet, and very energetic," added Stephen Dobyns, Tech's current McEver Chair in Poetry, who is sponsoring this event. It was Dobyns who invited Smith to be the featured poet. "In bringing Smith here, it's a way to make people more interested in poetry," he said. "I think the energy of what she does will draw people to the event."

It might also help to know what a poetry slam is; when I interviewed Murchison and Dobyns, I had no idea. First of all, they're hardly "readings": when I referred to the March 24 event as such, Dobyns interrupted me, saying, "[Smith] doesn't read, she recites. So it's a monologue... [slam poets] tend to recite their poems, tend to be very dramatic, tend to be not very interesting on the page. They depend on the human voice to give them energy."

Slam poetry originated in Chicago, and it is a rather recent phenomenon; in its contemporary form, it began to become popular and flourish as an art form in 1987. In a true Chicago-style slam, several poets compete against each other, with judges rating them and eliminating performers until only the best poet is left. These slams begin at the city level, and proceed to regional and national competitions.

"A lot of people would say that poetry shouldn't be competitive," said Murchison. "But here's how I see it. It's cool-it's really cool. But [slammers] are one, shocking, and two, loud. It has to be... because that verve has to come across in the delivery; they are up there really making a statement."

Not all events that slam poets perform at are slams; for example, there are also spoken word events, which are non-competitive. In Atlanta, said Murchison, there are maybe 50 of these a month. But the style of poetry at these events is the same: "In a regular reading, the poet just stands up there and reads, and it's sort of the audience's responsibility whether they listen or not," she said. "Slammers really make it their responsibility that you're listening. So slam poetry has its youth, it has its vigor, it has its message, it has its rhythm; it's hip-hop, bebop, you know, all of that."

"They have a lot of popularity with people who don't normally read," said Dobyns. "You think of what's sometimes called academic poetry-what you hear at universities-and there's often a very strong split between academic poetry and slam poetry."

Because of the performance element, while slam poetry may be more accessible for many people, some may not hold it in as high esteem. However, Dobyns notes, "You can go up on stage and shout anything if you have someone's attention, but it ranges from somebody just shouting-expletives, even-to something that is very carefully written sometimes, as well."

Murchison added, "Whether what you hear at a street-level slam is poetry or not is sort of a moot question. But let me say this: the better they get-such as when they rise through the ranks and become what Patricia Smith has become-they have both performance and poetry."

Indeed, Smith's credentials are impressive. Born and raised in Chicago, she has a background in journalism, having worked for the Chicago Sun Times and then The Boston Globe. Currently, said Dobyns, "She has a play that she's trying to get on Broadway, and she's been hired to write a biography of Harriet Tubman as well."

However, poetry was always part of Smith's work. From the beginning, her newspaper articles were known for their strong and passionate voice, and sometimes that caused controversy. "She got a little heavy on the poetry side of her news reporting, and made her articles more dramatic [than they should have been]," said Murchison. However, as a slam poet, this energy worked to her advantage. When she moved to Boston, she and her husband brought slam poetry to New England, and their effort helped to make it a national phenomenon.

Though both Dobyns and Murchison agree that the March 24 event is for everyone, Murchison emphasized that she hopes Tech students, especially, will come to the event. Concerned about the fact that the 14th Street Playhouse was off-campus, she even asked me whether I thought she should arrange for buses to shuttle students back and forth between the Playhouse and Tech campus.

"This is for a young audience," she said. "That's one of the reasons why we really want Tech students to know about it-this is their deal. She'll have the walls down in that place, and she'll do what spoken word artists do: she'll carry a social message or a political message, but it'll be highly entertaining, as well."

But Murchison also added, "I'll bet you anything Dr. Clough will be there. We had a slam for an event two years ago, and he came to that, and I think he... was knocked off his feet. And I know that he's been astounded that we have audiences like we do."

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