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Slam Free or Die

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photo: Brady Carlson, NHPR
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Slam poetry is all about finding a voice – combining the written word with a spoken performance to create new forms.

A group of New Hampshire slam poets have found a voice and a home in Manchester.

NHPR’s Brady Carlson talked with some of the members of Slam Free or Die.

Slam poets say they typically get just three minutes to perform – so they have to make the words count.

(Sam clip)

That poem is called “This is how I get.” It’s by Sam Teitel, a bearded Slam Free or Diehard with a tattoo of the word “Yeats” on his arm. Sam used to drive hours from his college campus to perform at the open mic nights, and to talk with – and learn from – the other poets afterward.

“Musicians get together and jam… we hang out and we read poems to each other, and we walk about the way the poems get read. So there is that community aspect to that performance.”

That community aspect was hard to find in Manchester not so many years ago, as slam organizer Mark Palas knows. He was looking for a community of writers like the one he’d had at the University of New Hampshire. But all he found was a lot of local talent scattering across New England.

“There would be a New Hampshire person on a different state’s team, and we said why are we letting all of our talent go somewhere else? Let’s invite them all back home and let’s have our own team.”

So he did. In 2006 he started hosting the weekly open mic nights at the Bridge Café, with a goal of sending a New Hampshire team to the National Poetry Slam. The next year they made it – though team member McKendy Fils-Aime says Manchester New Hampshire wasn’t exactly on the slam radar.

McKendy: “My favorite New Hampshire joke at the National Poetry Slam is, ‘oh, you guys are from England, right?’”

Mark: “Yeah, when we say Manchester, people immediately go ‘England?’”

After explaining where they were from, Slam Free or Die proceeded to show whothey were. Mark and Sam, who serve as the team’s coaches, noticed other teams had to start using their A material to keep up in competition. And McKendy, who occasionally needed some coaxing to go onstage when he first started performing, is now winning Slam Master awards at big events, thanks to poems like this one - a love poem in the persona of Count Dracula.

(McKendy poem)

This piece, called “Bloodlust,” is a Slam Free or Die favorite at the annual Valentine’s Day poetry night. McKendy waxes vampiric; other poets are romantic, and some just have fun. Last year one performer wrote a jokingly erotic ode to pudding.

Mark Palas says some poets work all year to find something new to say about love and present it at the Valentines show. In other words, the event has grown into a big deal, much like Slam Free or Die as a whole. It’s become the community Mark wanted when he moved back to Manchester  those years ago.

Mark, by the way, has been dubbed the Colonel of Slam Free or Die. As you might expect, the Colonel’s poem is a call to arms - to keep the community growing, and writing, and making its mark.

“When they ask you what Slam Free or Die has to offer, you tell them ‘We’re coming.’ When they ask you ‘Why do they call him the Colonel?’ You tell them I’m coming. And the poetry of this place and all the people behind it are coming with me.”

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