by Sabin Gratz
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 evenings 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 Citys 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
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
cant 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 Sapeinzas 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
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.
Its 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 thats
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 shes 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 Sapienzas sophomore
honors course, Knowledge and Theory, praises her students 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. Its stress, but its good
When asked what she gets out of slam poetry, Sapienza says, I cant
think what I dont get out of it. Its 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 its 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
The audience is riveted as Sapienzas reading gains momentum:
and people dont understand why I turn red when I hear the
see families who cant cope cause we dont let them
children fall because we push them
Im not getting into Special Ed for my good looks and am sick of
being told Im 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. Its
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.