Above: Rusty Cosino ’19 performs his “Men of Smoke.” (Image by Caitlin Cunningham for Boston College Magazine.)
The first-floor commons room in Thomas More Apartments was dark on February 12, save for a string of small white lights on the floor shaped into a heart and strewn with red rose petals, the flicker of a digital fireplace streaming from YouTube on a colossal flat-screen, and a snowblower’s headlight that occasionally bobbed into view through the glass doors. A steady snowfall couldn’t keep some 60 students from a night of spoken-word poetry.
SLAM! (short for Soul, Love, And Meaning) is an undergraduate poetry club founded in September 2014 by Haley Kerr ’17, an economics major. Its monthly readings and annual competitions each set forth a theme. Tonight, two dozen students would perform original poems in the spoken-word style (think hip-hop or jazz poetry or monologue theater) addressing “Love or Lack Thereof.” Kerr and Kellie O’Leary ’17, a psychology major, opened the show with a poem they cowrote about a failed relationship called “Farewell to All My Loving.” As O’Leary, in a black crop-top and long black skirt, sang the Beatles’ “All My Loving” in a soothing soprano, Kerr, in a black dress and large red bow pinned to the back of her head, shouted over her with pointed attacks such as, “You made me a ghost of myself.” Kerr rhymed rapid-fire, gasping audibly between lines (accepted spoken-word technique), shaking her head, hunching forward, and slicing her arm in a stabbing motion for emphasis. As O’Leary came to the end of the song, Kerr turned her back to the audience and whispered, “Farewell my friend.” The crowd whooped.
“With spoken word, you do all you can to connect with the audience,” Kerr, who talks just as fast when she’s not performing, told me after the show. “Your diction is super intentional. But you’ve also got to perform to convey emotions, yelling, whispering, making your body move.” A Connecticut native, Kerr wrote verse in middle school, until one day at 15 she came upon an online video of Austin-based spoken-word poet Anis Mojgani, a National Book Award nominee, acting out his 2005 poem “Shake the Dust.” She memorized its 660 words that day, and started writing her own spoken word. “The visceral response that it demands, that’s what I love,” she says.
There are no hard guidelines for composing spoken-word, but there are strict rules for competitions (called slams), devised by Poetry Slam, Inc., the nonprofit organization that sponsors the National Poetry Slam and the Individual World Poetry Slam: demerits for every 10 seconds a poem exceeds three minutes, no props, and a panel of five judges selected randomly from the audience, who grade both poem and performance. The Valentine’s show at Thomas More, however, wasn’t competitive.
Each performer morphed the mood in the room. One moment the beat was gospel, as freshman Olivia Sorenson, an English and communication major, rose to the tips of her toes and recited “Divine Intervention,” letting fly with the qualities of her God, “the author of an indiscriminate love so perfect yet so unknown,” to the crowd’s chorus of oh yes and mmm. The next moment, it was jazz. Jude Poku ’17, a psychology major from New Jersey, stood motionless in a gray hooded sweatshirt, clenching the microphone and his notebook as he recited “All Creatures” over muffled synthesizer music he’d composed. The audience adhered to standard spoken-word etiquette. When a poet announced it was his or her debut performance (eight were first-timers), they cheered, “Hey, virgin!” Responding to lines that moved them, they snapped their fingers (clapping during a poem, says Kerr, “disrupts flow”) or hollered, “OK, poet!”
Few of the performers were English majors, and many of the poems, works-in-progress sometimes read from cellphones, were deeply personal. Aaron Anderson ’18, a lean English and pre-med student in a black turtleneck, nearly whispered his poem “Callouses,” a rumination on the weathered features of his father after a long day of manual labor. Chandler Ford, a tall, brawny sophomore in a Fair Isle sweater, recited a reflection on death: “There is no justice without you just as there is no mercy with you.”
Rusty Cosino ’19, a film major who was recording the show for SLAM’s YouTube channel, began with a humorous meditation on coprolite, a form of fossilized feces, but a few lines in lamented an unrequited love interest who worked at a science museum.
The earliest reference in the Heights to student poetry gatherings appears in 1940, when Boston College undergraduates, including future novelist Joseph Dever ’42, joined Harvard’s “invitation only” Poetry Club. In 1966, the University opened a coffeehouse called Middle Earth (on Upper Campus), at which students regularly shared their verse.
Kerr and friends were hosting readings in their common rooms in the fall of 2014, until she registered SLAM! through the Office of Student Involvement, which enabled them to book event spaces. But every Tuesday night SLAM! reverts to its early intimacy when it holds workshops, often in Kerr’s Thomas More apartment. About 20 “Slamily” members regularly attend. One night in March, the group spent the hour constructively critiquing two students’ performances. Jamila Gordon, a graduate student in the School of Social Work, rehearsed a poem about her family’s generational strife; students suggested she “pause after ‘black bodies’ to let the words marinate in the room,” and “try different voices for you and your grandmother’s character.”
Near the end of the Valentine’s show, SLAM’s vice president Karina Herrera ’17, wearing a black sweater, black jeans, and black boots, told the audience she wrote her poem late the night before, as a dialogue with her absent father. “Yes I go to school,” she yelled. “Who else is going to bring hope into a house of brokenness?” She stomped on the carpet and swatted her arms in sharp arcs. “What kind of man are you that abandons his daughter for the sedative of a bottle?” She stopped herself, and closed her eyes. “I thank him for teaching me in his absence the definition of an independent woman. . . . I don’t love you. And I don’t hate you. I just forgive you.”
Snaps and mmms buzzed through the room.