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That midnight train to Alewife: Poets slam on the MBTA

Whether it's the clacking of the Orange Line as it comes above ground or the unmistakable screeching of a B train pulling into Park Street, there's a rhythm to the T. And public transit in Boston is an emotional experience -- an express train can make your day; a missed one can break your heart.

Where there's rhythm and emotion, poetry logically follows, so a collection of local writers took to the stage at the Cantab Lounge Wednesday for Boston Poetry Slam's tribute to the MBTA.

The evening kicked off with an open mic, in which Boston Public Schools teacher Ashley Rose spoke on Ruggles Station as a cultural divider in the city, and a black-windbreaker-clad, gray-bearded man introduced only as E.E. Cummings (too substantial-looking to be a ghost, but perhaps a reincarnation of the illustrious Cantabrigian?) gave a dramatic, interpretative recitation of a train-themed Mother Goose poem.

So how do slam poets describe their love-hate relationship with the Boston transportation system? Four teams of poets -- most of them Boston Poetry Slam vets -- represented the Blue, Green, Red, and Orange Lines to sound off on their respective T lines in front of a panel of judges.

To Hakim Walker, the Blue Line is the "crack vein of the MBTA." To Michael Quigg, the Red Line is what brings him home, be it Alewife or the Motel 6 nestled beside Braintree.

"The folk singer sounds like the Orange Line, but less in tune," says Christopher Kain, who then describes the train as a "sick dolphin." For Casey Rocheteau, it's what happens inside the Orange train that strikes her: "You'll get home, eventually -- but not without a fight."

Oh yes, then there's the Green line, that "overprivileged octopus," as poet Simone I. John put it. As a resident of Allston, the poems by the Green Line team (John, Carlos Williams, Maya Phillips, Adam Stone and the breathtaking Kemi Alabi) really hit home, and it was no surprise that their fierce odes about frat boys, hipsters, and PDA placed the team in first with a score of 139.9.

My favorite individual performance was April Ranger's evocative, sharply personal poem about heartbreak on the Orange Line. For many, love and relationships take on special meaning on the MBTA.

"Being on a train in Boston is a little like being in love," slam poet and event organizer Steve Subrizi said in a phone interview before the event. "There's some place you want to reach, but sometimes you have to wait in the middle of the tunnel, and the lights go out. You think you might suffocate. You're trapped with these people all around you that you don't know. It's really awkward."

Keeping the "T" in poetry, Friday marks the start of the MBTA ad campaign for the National Poetry Slam, to be held in Boston and Cambridge from August 9-13.  So if the chaos of the Red Line at rush hour isn't enough to inspire you, at least a glance to the train's walls can tell you when to get your next fix of lyricism and storytelling.

--by Wei-Huan Chen and Katie Lannan

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