Poetry slams at the Cantab Lounge

‘Pouring out their hearts and souls on stage’

The Cantab Lounge

738 Mass. Ave., Cambridge

The Boston Poetry Slam: Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:15 p.m.

Long lines. Narrow stairs. Noisy basement. Crowded bar.

A microphone in the spotlight.

Those are the first things to notice when you get to the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, home of the Boston Poetry Slam. Every Wednesday night, from 8 p.m. onwards, this is where the artists “pour out their hearts and souls on stage,” in the words of Simone Beaubien, the SlamMaster, who has hosted all three of the poetry slams I’ve attended at the Cantab Lounge.

The night begins with an “open mic” session for non-competing poets to perform. This is frequently followed by a “Feature” poet, and then an “open slam.” The open slam is, at its core, a competition. Artists compete in rounds and are given scores by five judges from the audience.

There are very few limits on the poetry itself, aside from a time limit and an originality requirement. Some are soft, melancholic, and quietly elegant, some are rapidly fired rap-like words of passion or anger, and others are somewhere in between. They are about love, hate, secrets, loss, opinions, confessions, a funny encounter at a coffee shop, a reflection on hearing raindrops on an April afternoon, a sudden realization or acceptance of sexuality, or anything else.

The last time I was at the Cantab Lounge, I was the fourth person to volunteer as an open slam judge. After a background check — China, Maryland, Minnesota, and now MIT — Simone said, “we like diversity in our judges, so ideally, I’m now looking for an elderly Hispanic man, but I don’t think I’ll find one.”

To be a judge, you cannot be affiliated with any of the contestants. “So if you’ve slept with none or all of them, you’re golden. If you’ve slept with some, you can’t judge,” she joked. “But there’s still time!” added a poet from the bar.

The winner of any week’s open slam is eligible to compete at the preliminary round of the “Team Selection” slams, and the winners of the final round represent Boston at the National Poetry Slam, which takes place every August. This year’s final round took place at the Cantab Lounge on March 13th, and the winners will form the home team for this year’s National Slam, which will be hosted in Boston.

Although it’s a competition, there’s no award for winning a slam aside from the satisfaction of winning itself, and that’s what makes every poetry slam such a genuine, passionate experience. The poets are performing purely for their love of poetry, and nothing more.

I love going to poetry slams. They take away the distance cold words on a sheet of paper can put before a reader, and put a voice, a face, a gesture, a pause, a jump, a gasp, an exclamation, or a deep inhale in their place. They let you feel the poetry through the reverberation that runs from the fingertips with which you tightly grip your wooden chair, and up into your heart. A slam lets you feel a poem, and connect with it in a way that you cannot connect to letters on a page.