Slam poetry, when artists share spoken word with an audience of judges in competition with their peers, is popular all over the country and Providence is one of the most well-known names in the national scene.
Every other Thursday, AS220 holds “Free Speech Thursdays” where brave souls can share their poetry and hopefully qualify for the Providence Slam Poetry Team.
This week, the local team heads to the National Poetry Slam in Boston.
For those unfamiliar with the idea of a poetry slam, this is how it works: A slam consists of 3 rounds. Each poet gets one shot per round with 3 minutes per poem. Five audience members are chosen at random before the slam begins as judges and rate each poem from 1-10 with one decimal point.
Last week, Providence invited the teams from Worcester and Portland, Maine to take part in a “Decathlon Slam” to let off some steam before they reach the national stage. The ten rounds of this slam ranged anywhere from love poems, poems based upon headlines from that day’s newspaper, and even “Conservative Haikus.” The last time Nationals were in Boston, Providence was the only New England team to make it to the final stage.
“This year’s team is a very ‘Providence’ team,” said Megan Thoma, the current Slam Master of Providence team. “A lot of members have grown up and live here. It’s a very diverse team with different voices, ages, races and genders. A lot of teams are all in their twenties but ours has a lot of age variation.”
Jared Paul is a nationally celebrated performance poet whose art is deeply rooted in politics and activism. He was one of the independent journalists that was arrested at the Republican National Convention in 2008 and is an active supporter of animal rights, environmental, and social justice activism.
“For me,” said Paul, “the political reality of what’s happening around me is an inseparable part of my life, outlook, goals, and artistic choices. Everything is political in one way or another. People have been using the oral tradition to organize, create dialogue, and spread political ideas since the very beginning of human interaction.”
Paul’s link to the poetry community in Providence is a strong one that goes back quite a few years. He became involved in the world of spoken word poetry when he was a student at URI and has never turned back. He was a member of the Providence Team from 2000 to 2007, making it as far as the Finals Stage at the Individual World Poetry Slam in 2006 and 2007 representing Providence. Perhaps the most notable impact Paul has made upon the Providence community was by founding the Providence Youth Slam, a team that he coached from 2002 through 2008, during which time they made it to the Finals stage in 2003, 2005, and 2006.
“I believed in the modern performance poetry movement with all my heart— as a means of artistic and political expression, catharsis, self identification/discovery, community discourse, etc. There was nothing like that in my high school or my town growing up, but I would’ve been all about it if there were! So many youth were at AS220 all the time. The interest was there and I knew it would take off. All we had to do was put the word and engage the community, and it took off.”
He added, “Everyone is an artist. If you have stories that you love, or that are screaming inside your chest, eager to claw their way out, then write them! And after you write them, come on down to Providence Slam (or any open mic) and share them!”
One of these individuals that found himself drawn into the community that Paul had created and fostered was Devin Samuels, a Cranston native for whom poetry is a passion. Prior to joining the community, “I was kid who kind of liked to do poetry and became a poet – something that defines me. I’m surrounded by people my age who are absurdly talented and love to do what I do.”
Samuels was on the Providence Youth Team in 2009 and 2011, and this year marks his first year as a member of the adult team.
“There needs to be a tension between the respect for art and healthy sharing versus the nastiness of competition,” he said. “Providence doesn’t forsake art for the judges; it’s a safe, wholesome scene. Everyone is here for art – it’s genuine.”
For poetry enthusiasts nationwide Providence is a well-known name, the birthplace of the careers of renowned poets such as Sarah Kaye, Phillip Kay, Taylor Mali, Sage Francis and – of course – Jared Paul.
But the majority of the local population has no idea that the seemingly small community has such a national presence. According to Samuels, “Providence is not a small fish. We may not be a well known here, but nationally we are known and respected as a force.”