Review: Boston vs. NYC Slam Poetry Grudge Match at the Armory

For many, poetry slams are like open mike nights or not-drunk-enough Karaoke: powder-kegs for some serious collective embarrassment. It can be stifling, that shared awkwardness between strangers. You never quite get used to it, the unease; what is that? Delusion? Social subtext? A moment of unforgiving clarity? It's sort of like a mumblecore sex-scene: you know awkward when you see it.

But when that shifty-eyed discomfort is expected and miraculously doesn't show, it's likely that something good is in the making. All of which is to say that some fine poets, hailing from a town called New York, were dropped off by a Fung Wah bus this past Friday (a miracle in itself) to participate in a slam poetry skirmish with their big-city rivals. The head-to-head sparring took place in Somerville's aptly named Arts at the Armory, where the winners would claim bragging rights in time for this summer's showdown at the 2011 National Poetry Slam.

Kicking things off was New York's "eco-billy" (that's eco-friendly, rockabilly) poet Christian Drake, who set the tragicomic tone with his ode to a fatally shot Siberian tiger named Tatiana (download here). Then, Boston native Sam Teitel got the grudge match started in earnest with a hilarious NYC-bashing poem that concluded: "The people here are shot-gun shells, the winter is an atomic bomb, and NOBODY uses this city as an excuse to be an asshole."

Later, New York's veteran Jeanann Verlee delivered the night's most intimate performance with her psycho-tragic poem "The Session," which treated her struggle with loneliness and depression. Here, host Dawn Gabriel had her work cut out for her, trying to lighten the mood with jokes that often came off as overtly cavalier, deflating the kinetic atmosphere many of the poets created.

Fortunately, with one round remaining, raving Bostonian Brian S. Ellis revived the electricity, decimating the crowd with his trademark paroxysms of fury, which earned him the top individual score of the night. Yet, despite Ellis's bracing performance, NYC clinched the win by just 0.9 of a point overall, rekindling the already combustible rivalry as we head into the 2011 National Poetry Slam in Cambridge this summer.

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