Rhyme meets wrestling

Worcester Poetry Slam squad holds its own in national arena
By Pamela H. Sacks



A Pulitzer Prize-winner was savaged by the judges one year, while a contestant — with less obvious credentials — recited poetry about his job as a cop.
He got raves.
Welcome to the world of slam poetry, a competitive form of performance verse in which the muse meets the World Wrestling Entertainment, as devotees like to say.
Competition in poetry writing and recitation is a vehicle for honing a performance and injecting excitement into the art form, if you ask Bill MacMillan, Worcester’s slam master.
“There’s a big difference between reading a piece of poetry and speaking from the heart about whatever a poet’s passion is,” Mr. MacMillan said. “You get taken along for the ride.”
Pitting poets against one another is the gimmick that draws a crowd. “Ultimately, the only reason for it is to get people to come in and hear poetry,” he said.
The main event is the annual National Slam Poetry competition, which was held last month in Chicago and drew 63 teams from across the country. Worcester’s entry, coached by Mr. MacMillan, himself a former slam champion, came in a respectable 20th, missing the semifinals by a hair.
The teams, composed of four poets each, tested their creativity, expressiveness and stamina in elimination bouts, often before crowds of up to 2,000 people. Dave Mac, Serene Devine and Jon Wolfe, all of Worcester, and Ed Fuqua of Providence, R.I., made up Worcester’s contingent. Gary Hoar, also a Providence resident, served as an alternate.
The judges, who were chosen from the audience at random, scored the poets individually and as part of their teams, which also had to perform multivoice pieces. The top 10 poets entered an individual competition.
Worcester has a long been known as a haven for poets. Elizabeth Bishop lived in the city and Stanley Kunitz, a former U.S. poet laureate, is a Worcester native. The Worcester County Poetry Association boasts more than 300 members.
The city’s poets and their verse are diverse. Poetry Oasis, which is in the traditional vein, invites a featured poet and has an open reading two Sundays a month at the Village Arts Gallery in Quinsigamond Village.
The Worcester Po8ry Project sponsors the Poets’ Asylum, an open reading, feature and slam event every Sunday night at the Java Hut. Other poets’ groups are active in towns across the region.
Worcester poets jumped on the slam bandwagon in 1989, when the art form was just developing. They fielded their first team 10 years ago. Now slam has become so big that the national event will be split in two — a contest for teams and another for individual poets.
And, not surprisingly, Worcester has been selected by slam’s gov erning body, Poetry Slam Inc., to host the Individual World Poetry Slam Championship in February 2005.
Mr. MacMillan and Christine Proffitt, the city’s cultural development officer, couldn’t be more thrilled.
“We’ll bring in hundreds of the best poets for three days of competitions, workshops and demonstrations,” Mr. MacMillan said. “We’ll be able to say, `Here’s the best in the world. Have fun.’ ”
Ms. Proffitt described herself as “ecstatic” about hosting the event.
“It’s progressive, it’s cutting-edge,” she said. “A lot of this will highlight Worcester as a place where culture shines and give an opportunity to show off Worcester and showcase our local talent.”
Making it onto the Worcester slam team is an achievement in itself. Mr. MacMillan is called a slam master because he organizes a series of bouts that run from autumn to spring. Poets aiming for the nationals must compete in the bouts, which end with the selection of five top poets who make up the team, plus the alternate.
Mr. MacMillan then puts on his coaching hat, and he and the poets start meeting once or twice a week to sharpen their skills.
“We’re seeking variance in voices and presentation,” Mr. MacMillan said. “It’s less competitive and more the challenge. I tell the team, `You’re competing against yourself.’ ”
The slam poets hold a series of fund-raisers to pay their way to the nationals. Sometimes they auction off bizarre items; one year, they used a poet’s inheritance.
This year’s group traveled to Chicago in a rented 15-passenger van and stayed in a bed and breakfast just a two-minute walk from the competition venues.
Before each bout, a “sacrificial” poet warms up the audience. Mr. Hoar, the alternate, took on that role a couple of times. He said he devotes “reams and reams of hard drive space” to his writing, and then picks his best three poems for the national slam. He was on the Providence team in 2000 and the Worcester team in 2001.
One of his poems for Chicago, “Maximum Advertising Potential!” was about the insularity of the corporate culture. It worked well for slam because “it has quiet moments and loud ones,” Mr. Hoar said.
As the bouts got under way, the scoring generated much of the excitement, said Mr. MacMillan, who emceed two preliminary rounds.
“We tell the audience, `Holler, yell and scream and try to influence the judges.’ Then we tell the judges the opposite, `Pay no attention to the audience,’ ” he explained, laughing.
The main competitions aside, the nationals are a veritable poet’s paradise, offering myriad activities from morning to night. “That’s where a lot of the fun is,” Mr. MacMillan said. “The head-to-head haiku competition is packed to the rafters. There are hip-hop readings and ethnic groups.”
He estimated that 8,000 to 10,000 people from around the world attended one or another of the events for 2003.
Mr. MacMillan, 36, was introduced to slam at the Coffee Kingdom, a smoky, Bohemian-style hangout in Worcester that has since changed hands and is now simply called The Kingdom. He won the slam and shared the prize money, $10, with the second-place poet.
“At first I didn’t like it,” he said. “I thought it was stupid. I gave it another try and got hooked. I decided to organize my own slam.”
He took first place at the 1996 nationals, which were held in Portland, Ore. A filmmaker was making a documentary — and Mr. MacMillan was not left on the cutting-room floor. “SlamNATION,” won rave reviews. “Frenetically high-powered … Verbally akin to stripping naked!” wrote Stephen Holden of The New York Times.
“That was a big chunk of my 15 minutes of fame,” Mr. MacMillan remarked.
Mr. MacMillan, who is the arms and armor conservator at the Higgins Armory Museum, even lives in a “poetic” environment. His wife, Sou, is a poet, novelist and musician. They share the first floor of a three-decker near Quinsigamond Village with their 4-year-old son, Liberty. Ms. Devine lives on the second floor, and Alixa Garcia, who competed with the Providence team, lives on the third floor.
“The bottom apartment has been handed from poet to poet,” Mr. MacMillan said. “We try to keep it in the family.”
Mr. MacMillan had no problem with the Los Angeles team’s first place finish this year.
“With the Los Angeles group, there was a lot less shouting and a lot more craft and thoughtfulness,” he said. “They wrote well and presented well.”
But Worcester had its triumph, he pointed out. The city tied with Ann Arbor, Mich., for first place in another contest, this one to recruit new members to Poetry Slam Inc. Each city’s team brought in 82.
“We had no hesitation making fun of Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco,” he said with a sly grin. “Combined, they didn’t reach what Worcester got.”