The audience sits in messy rows of folding chairs at AS220’s Main Stage, some alone, some with friends, people linger at the back and lean against the walls. Tonight they are subdued, which is why Vatic, co-director of the Providence Poetry Slam and the evening’s MC, urges the crowd to make some noise, “It’s not church! Well, it’s a little like church.” The poems—part confession, part sermon, part prayer—demand the same kind of unquestioned respect that is expected of a congregation.
The Providence Poetry Slam, or ProvSlam, takes over the AS220 Main Stage in downtown Providence every first and third Thursday of every month. The name refers to both the event and the organization. The event is a “slam”—where poets sign up, and compete against one another in a series of knockout rounds, performing a single poem in each round—and takes place in Providence. Simultaneously, it is the name of the organization Providence Poetry Slam which organizes the slams at AS220, leads youth workshops, invites poets to do feature performances, and sends the slam teams (adult and youth)—comprised of ProvSlam finalists—to compete around the country.
Slam poetry is characterized as a “grassroots” poetry movement, existing on the fringes of the literary world, populated by those outside or beyond the academy. Some are refugees from meter and verse, disinclined to use formal structure to express themselves, none are ignorant of their literary forebears, be that Maya Angelou, Tupac, Ginsberg, or the countless others.
Most surprising to newcomers will likely be the noise. Unlike the rapturous silence expected during a Catholic or Episcopalian service, a slam is like a Baptist church. The poet reaches out to the audience, and the audience reaches back. It is poetry for the people, and the people fill the room with support and approval, snapping their approval, stomping their feet, letting out calls of “What” and “Yes” to uplift and accent the performing poet’s words. Regardless of the expectation that the audience will make some noise it is not a free-for-all. Tonight, poet Christopher gets up to perform and start with an apology; a man sitting near him was speaking on his cellphone and Christopher asked him to stop or go outside. At the slam, respect is paramount; no one boos the poets, while opening and closing the door to the space is recommended only between performances, as are conversations and moving between seating.
The other surprise is the process of judging a slam; it can be described as “for the people, by the people,” keeping with the ethos of a democratic poetry. At every slam, judges are selected from the audience, regardless of poetic impulse, literary acumen, or aesthetic temperament. This keeps the poets on their toes; it’s impossible to play to the Russian judge when you don’t know which one that might be. It also reenforces the communal and participatory nature of poetry and performance. The judges retain their anonymity as they hold up their scores from their scattered seats within the audience. Vatic’s voice rings out through the speakers, “Judges, let’s see those scores” and the audience waits, on edge, for him to read them out—ranging from 1.0 to 10, it’s rare, but not impossible, in Providence, to hear a score lower than a 6. Like any good sport; the audience doesn’t always agree with the judges, and show their approval or disapproval of the scores by stomping their feet, clapping, whooping, demanding “What?” or “Come on!” as the MC reads them off from stage left to stage right.
The adult team is going to Colorado this year, while the youth team will be competing in Oakland. The organization is supported through the admission price: $5 for adults, while those 19 and under get a discount during Youth Slam nights. Like populist performers through the ages, ProvSlam passes around a metaphorical hat, in this case a lunchbox, at each slam to collect donations from the audience. The proceeds go towards maintaining the workshops, and especially towards getting the teams to their various competitions. Sign-ups to participate in the slams starts at 7:15PM and the show starts at 8:00PM, sharp. For more information, check out Providence Poetry Slam on Facebook.