Musicians Push Boundaries in Poetry Slam

Lesley Mahoney
January 11, 2010
Jazmin McCray earns the highest score after two rounds of slamming, earning her top honors for the evening.
Bruce George, a Tony and Peabody Award–winning performance poet, gets the crowd going with his poems and call to social activism.
Nick Esposito performs a poem that illuminates the perspectives of a serial killer.
Camille Colatosti, chair of the Liberal Arts Department, teaches the Poetry Jam and Slam class. A veteran of the poetry slam scene, she performs one of her own pieces to get the night going.
Sali Boyd
Jennifer Ayala and Sarah Bonneville perform a duel piece they wrote for a class exercise on erotic poetry.
Scott Kapelman
Taylor Rasberry
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

For these musicians, performance was far from an unfamiliar concept. But stripped (with a few exceptions) of their music, this kind of show took them outside their comfort zone and prompted them to expose their artistry in a new way.

For one night, 13 students took on the role of performance poets for the latest in a series of poetry slams at Cafe 939. From tales of loves lost to making gumbo to an ode to the Mac computer to reflections of a serial killer, the students bared their souls and their chops for what amounted to their "final exam" for their Poetry Slam and Jam class last semester.

Their fearless teacher Camille Colatosti, chair of the Liberal Arts Department, took to the stage first as the slam's "sacrificial poet." No stranger to the slam scene, the Detroit native waxed about her hometown tradition of transforming oil drums into vessels for barbeque.

Emceed by Boston-area slam host extraordinaire Simone Beaubien with a special appearance by Tony and Peabody Award–winning performance poet Bruce George, the slam went for two rounds; five audience members who were selected as judges cast their scores, determining who would advance to the second round and ultimately, whom to crown slam champion. The audience cheered and jeered (if they didn't approve of the scores), sustaining an up-tempo, energetic vibe.

"On stage, they were all coming to life. They blossomed in a wonderful way," Colatosti said of her students, who for the most part were new to competitive performance poetry, which took root as an art form in the mid-1980s. "It's a different feeling getting up in front of an audience with just words and body language, and without music to rely on."

Each week in class, the students got a primer on the craft—learning about poets, from traditional to performance; and writing and performing their own poems, which were critiqued by Colatosti and classmates. The students also participated in a workshop by local performance poet Caroline Harvey. From this workshop, Harvey collaborated with students Sarah Bonneville and Jennifer Ayala for a rousing finale slam performance of a piece "Up to the Light," which interspersed poetry, vocal performance, and Bonneville on the ukulele. Bonneville called it a "really cool organic experience."

As the semester wrapped up, the students' progress was evident. "They've shown tremendous growth in the last few weeks," Colatosti said after the slam. "It really stretched the students to challenge and communicate through writing and recommunicate through performance. In this class, students really develop as a community of artists working together."

Jazmin McCray earned the distinction of slam champion. The vocalist from Poughkeepsie, New York performed "Girl, I'm Sorry," a poem about finding out a guy you like has a girlfriend, and "Royalty," a poem McCray described as her own "personal anthem" about self-respect. She also performed "Computer Love" with classmate Scott Kapelman, a clever play-on-words tribute to the Mac laptop.

While pleased for the honor, McCray—who describes her style as "honesty meets raw emotion"—said it's not about winning. "It's about poetry," she said. "The audience is such an important part. You can't hide behind the music."

As for the class, McCray, a music business/management major, gave kudos to Colatosti. "She is excellent. She grew up right in the heart of [the slam poetry scene]. For me, the class was life-changing. I've always wanted to perform poetry but never had an outlet. I'm grateful to Berklee for opening up the Liberal Arts Department so that students can express themselves in the best way they possibly can."

For Bonneville, a second-semester vocalist from Minneapolis, Minnesota, the class and the slam have helped enhance her songwriting. "You're not up there with your instrument or your band. You're just there with your voice and your words," she said. "You have three minutes to wow this audience. There's so much energy and emotion. You're pouring out your soul. You get pushed out of your comfort zone, which ultimately makes your comfort zone bigger. You push out your boundaries. As a musician, that's what you need to do. As a singer/songwriter, as a poet, these are the kinds of experiences that only broaden your artistic horizons. As a songwriter, it's providing me with a different paradigm of how to see things. . . . It's opening up how I see things."

The slamming was far from over after the class wrapped up for the semester and the curtain call. As a result of the Poetry Jam and Slam class, Bonneville started the Berklee Poetry Slam Scene, which meets weekly and features an open mic and talks by local poets. Bonneville and other classmates, meanwhile, will represent Berklee on the Berklee Poetry Slam Team in late February at SUNY New Paltz for a pre-event for the Association of College Unions International's College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI). The students will then go on to the CUPSI in April, to be held at Emerson.