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May 29. 2013 9:04PM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Slam Free or Die, a society of poets


 

McKendy Fils-Aime reads some of his poetry during an open-mic night last week at Slam Free or Die. (MARK HAYWARD / UNION LEADER)

I write for a living.

But don't call me a writer, any more than you would describe a painter as a guy who paints houses for a living.

He uses paintbrushes like I use words — as tools to eke out a living in a world that appreciates a crisp morning newspaper as much as a fresh coat of latex in the living room. Maybe less.

Journalism uses the tools of words and sentences to convey facts and information, what singer-songwriter Paul Simon described, rather clairvoyantly, as "staccato signals of constant information" back in 1986. We aren't poetic.

If you want that from our language, head to Milly's Tavern in the Manchester Millyard on Thursday nights, where Slam Free or Die has been presenting open-mic poetry readings and poetry slams for the last 2½ years.

"It's kind of like coming to church. We get to this place where we celebrate the art form of poetry," said McKendy Fils-Aime, the featured poet at last Thursday's reading. He is also a member of the team the Manchester group is sending to the national poetry slam this summer.

The atmosphere of the function room at Millie's suits a gathering of underground types who conjure up something as subversive as poetry.

The room is as dark as early nightfall, except for the light beamed onto the poet-performer by tiny halogen fixtures. The reader is surrounded by tables of listeners, camped just inside a 3-foot comfort zone.

The backdrop — a brick wall and a large window — provides a clandestine feel, especially when the headlight beam from a car in the outside parking lot tracks along the window.

Very few of the dozen or so poets read from memory. Some hold up worn notebooks, others iPhones. One laid a laptop on a music stand before voicing his verse.

Some works draw shouts of approval, as when Raven McGill reads about a fighting couple who live next door to her:

"We're all the kindling for what love is capable of.

How warm does your lover's body have to be before smoke alarms go off?"

Some are personal, and hush the crowd in concentration, as when Tim Hopkins speaks about a spell of sobriety ruined by a hit of marijuana:

"Now I'm stuck looking at shot glasses like they're opportunities to find the truth I've been searching for.

Does the loss outweigh the gain?

Everyone I've loved has run away at least once. ...

Something had to change.

Maybe I would have learned more as a lonely drunk

Than a man with friends who always ask, "Are you OK?"

And some draw laughter, as when Charles Xavier Lacerte writes about Johnny Damon's transformation from bearded Red Sox to clean-cut Yankee.

"Rich, he no longer looks like Jesus.

We are just the afterthoughts of championship."

The audience is mostly young and supportive of the readers. Many of the men have long hair and facial hair. Some wear black T-shirts and boots. A few of the women have colored hair. Many wear skirts.

Some are students — a faithful crowd comes down from New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord, said Mark Palos, the organizer of the event. Others have jobs as hospital workers, caretakers for the disabled, public school teachers. Palos used to work for a gold buyer.

"It's a great group of people. You're going to find people here who normally wouldn't come together," said Alicia DeSantis, a Danville resident and business major at Southern New Hampshire University.

DeSantis started attending in high school because her teacher was on the slam team, she said.

Thursday night was an open mic night. Slams — competitions where judges select winners during three elimination rounds — finished last month and won't resume until September.

Poetry readings in Manchester started in 2005 at the Bridge Street Cafe, Palos said. The organizers adopted the title Slam Free or Die in 2007 during a nationals competition. They moved to Milly's in 2010, drawn by the space and a bar, Palos said.

About 75 people were on hand last week; finals night last April drew about 115, he said.

Palos reads as well as gives instruction on writing and performance. On Thursday, he lambasted the mall (full of hatred; full of cancer, the red blood cells of product and the white blood cells of money).

Like all the readings of the night, his was answered with applause. Then Palos, a University of New Hampshire graduate with an English degree, kept the night running smoothly, all the time nurturing poetry in the city.

"If you're not interested in teaching," he said, "there's not a whole lot out there."

Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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