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photo by Sabin Gratz

Verse with Volume
by Rachel Morton

Over the next few hours, if Sarah Sapienza ’06 has anything to do with it, the students in the Fireplace Lounge at the Living Learning Center will become a raucous mob. As they sit quietly sipping their coffee waiting for the poetry slam to begin, they are blissfully unaware that they are to be part of the evening’s entertainment. Sapienza is the emcee for this slam and her mission, in addition to bringing poetry to her peers, is to bring out the critic in them — loudly.

This being Vermont, she has her work cut out for her.

Poetry slams are to poetry readings what “The Gong Show” is to a recital. At a slam, poets are rated not only on their verse, but also by how well they perform that verse. Judges, picked at random from the audience, hold up scorecards as if they were at a skating competition, and the audience responds with cheers or jeers for the poetry, the poets, and the judges.

Though poetry slams were born in Chicago in 1986, the Nuyorican Cafe in New York City’s East Village has become the holy ground. There, poets practically assault the audience with a hailstorm of words — sometimes funny, sometimes profane, sometimes lyrical, always affecting — and the audience hurls back its own response. There are some slam venues where a poet can literally be yanked off the stage, if the audience is annoyed enough.

There will be no yanking tonight, but Sapienza is hoping to create a hint of the atmosphere of an authentic slam. To that end, she is appointing judges, then instructing them on the scoring (“A 1 means ‘I can’t believe you got up and read that thing.’ A 10 means, ‘Oh my god I want that poem tattooed on my body.’”); she is performing the first poem to get the ball rolling; and she is harassing, needling, and insulting the audience, who remain shyly and politely quiet, in spite of Sapeinza’s attempts to goad them into vocal action. It seems that here at UVM, the poetry slam is going to be something closer to a poetry hug.

Charlie Hoag ’02 organized the event under the auspices of the Debate Team — which speaks volumes about how slams differ from traditional poetry readings — and he is pleased when several “Slam Virgins” sign up to compete, including Shana Bryce, who has helped set up the lights for the show. The sophomore English major, under the stage name “Crazy Torres,” launches into a love poem and as her score of 21 is computed and announced, she beams: “Cool beans.” Several other new readers take their chances in the spotlight, mostly reading love poetry, some composed on the spot. They receive polite applause and respectable scores.

But it is not until two experienced slammers get started that the crowd has a glimpse of the kind of showmanship in action at more established slam venues. Joe Kannel ’04, with his patchy beard and long lank hair, looks the part as he delivers “Listen, Okay?” in a kind of hip-hop cadence, reflecting more the urban style of poetry slams. Sapienza explains later that outside of Burlington, the slams are much more political.

“It’s obvious when you compete with teams from L.A. and Chicago,” she says, “you can see the political climate; slam poets are historians of their area.”

Hoag, too, is an experienced slammer. Though he began only six months ago, Hoag admits to being “addicted” to the slam, and he competes whenever and wherever he can find a venue, including a recent performance at the Nuyorican in New York. At UVM, his highly dramatic performance of a poem devoted, ostensibly, to laundry soap, but in actuality about gender roles, advertising, and big business, gets the high score of the night and Hoag happily walks away with the coveted first prize — a Homer Simpson doll that sings “Shake Your Booty.”

Hoag would perform this same poem a few weeks later during the slam semifinals and earn a much lower score, highlighting the inherently subjective nature of poetry slams. Though Hoag has some reservations about the scoring (“Sometimes the judging is suspect,” he confides), Sapienza thinks that’s one of the charms of the slam. “How you do depends upon how you affect people with your poem at that moment.”

A Secondary Education major and a member of the John Dewey Honors Program, Sapienza began her slam career at 15 when she took a workshop in high school, and she’s been writing and performing poetry ever since. Sapienza has represented the state of Vermont twice in national slam competitions — once on the junior slam team and then in 2002 as one of four slam poets that Vermont sent to the national competition in Minneapolis.

With her tousled curly hair, glasses, and general fleece-and-flannel Vermont look, Sapienza is a surprise when she puts on a baseball cap and takes command of the stage. She can deliver a poem like an arrow straight to the heart. Professor Lisa Schnell, who teaches Sapienza’s sophomore honors course, Knowledge and Theory, praises her student’s natural abilities: “She lives her life in words.”

If her life is lived in words, the stage for those words is a trendy bar in downtown Burlington called The Waiting Room. This is the unofficial home for slamming in northern Vermont, and the competition can be intense, especially when the national competitions draw near. But Sapienza, for one, relishes the atmosphere. “It’s stress, but it’s good stress.”

When asked what she gets out of slam poetry, Sapienza says, “I can’t think what I don’t get out of it. It’s an outlet to perform and write. It gives me acceptance and positive feedback.” Indeed, the instantaneous, honest, emotional feedback is what draws creative types like Sapienza to the slam. When it’s the “oh-my-god-I-want-that-poem-tattooed-on-my-body” kind of feedback, it can get a slammer hooked.

For the second round of the semifinals held at The Waiting Room, Sapienza performs an autobiographical piece entitled “Retard,” inspired by her brother, who is physically and developmentally delayed. Her performance is intense, personal, and focused.

“The evolution of a word:
changeling. half-wit. cretin. imbecile. idiot, moron, retard.
words then socially acceptable susceptible to present day use.
let me warn you now, in case you get queasy: this poem contains dead babies, viewpoints and the possible indictment of most of you in this room.
take a moment if you need one
and leave.”

The audience is riveted as Sapienza’s reading gains momentum:

“and people don’t understand why I turn red when I hear the ‘r’ word
see families who can’t cope ’cause we don’t let them
children fall because we push them
I’m not getting into Special Ed for my good looks and am sick of being told I’m a saint when I profess the desire for change. . .”

She gets a prolonged, vocal applause and a score of 28.9 — making her the winner of the evening and advancing her to the finals. It’s clear, seeing her grin as she accepts her prize amid the hooting and pandemonium of cheering friends and fellow slammers, that a life lived in words is that much richer when shared with a noisy crowd.

Rachel Morton is a writer and editor in Burlington.