Interview with Simone Beaubien, Host City Director for the National Poetry Slam 2011 (NPS2011)
A decade-plus-veteran of the New England poetry scene, Simone Beaubien makes her home in suburban Massachusetts, working as a paramedic and hosting the weekly Boston Poetry Slam at the Cantab Lounge. Simone has performed her work in colleges, bookstores, theaters, and bars on both coasts of the continent and all over New England. She has competed at the National Poetry Slams in Seattle, St. Louis, Albuquerque, Austin, Madison, and St. Paul; coached her 2008 National Poetry Slam team to a fourth-place Finals finish - Boston’s highest rank since 1995; was sole emcee for the finals of the 2007 Individual World Poetry Slam in Vancouver; and is Host City Director for the 2011 National Poetry Slam in Boston/Cambridge.
How did you come to be Host City Director for NPS2011?
I’ve been interested in bringing the National Poetry Slam to Boston since I attended in 2004; it’s an amazing series of shows, poetry parties and community-building events. As the SlamMaster for the Boston Poetry Slam at the Cantab Lounge, I submitted a bid to our parent non-profit, Poetry Slam, Inc., back in September of 2008.
Can you describe the process for selecting a host city for the NPS?
Anyone can bid for NPS— a SlamMaster, a poet, an individual event planner, or even a city official. The bid process is fairly informal, but it helps if PSi knows you. I’ve been a member of PSi for more than a decade, and the Boston Poetry Slam has a great reputation for poets and audience, so they were very happy to see a bid from Boston.
What does it take to get a slam team into the NPS?
Only a venue certified by Poetry Slam, Inc. can send a team to NPS. That means a venue has to prove that it has enough audience to sustain a slam, and show that they have at least six slams per year that are open to anyone who wants to enter. Once a venue is certified, they must represent at the annual SlamMaster meeting and are encouraged to participate in regional matches. The whole process takes about a year, so now is a good time to start planning for NPS 2012!
In looking over your impressive history as a major player in slam poetry I did not see the Women of the World Poetry Slam mentioned. Care to comment?
Actually, I haven’t participated in the Individual World Poetry Slam, either, an amazing annual event that even came to Worcester, Mass. as recently as 2005. Being a SlamMaster, performance coach, and organizer for a large event doesn’t always leave me the time I’d like to compete and write for myself.
I have heard of some gender bias in slam poetry. Coincidentally, for the Eye On Life Poetry Contest last year, most of the judges were women and all of the winners were women. Just sayin’. Anyway, do you notice that folks tend to favor poets of their own gender when judging poetry in a slam?
I am pretty sure that the gender bias you have heard of in slam is the same gender bias you see every day at work, in the bar, and overall in artistic industries and communities! Judges in a poetry slam are always randomly selected, so what they are judging on can be hard to determine, but it’s of course made up of a combination of life experience, the pressure from the audience in the room, and just however the judge is feeling on that particular day.
Like any listener, judges respond to a number of superficial and societal cues from the poet that have nothing to do with poetry, often without even knowing what they are doing. Some of those cues might be volume, power, vulnerability, or how attractive they deem the speaker —which could go either way for men or women.
[Editor’s note: Just for the record, the judges at Eye On Life did not know the name, gender or anything else about the poets whose poems they judged. When I said ‘coincidentally,’ I meant it. I do not believe our judges had any bias except their personal preferences for poetry itself.]
Do you try to balance the demographics of slam judges for race, gender, or other criteria? If so, what is your thinking?
The official PSi handbook actually recommends finding judges in a range of demographics, in the spirit of finding judges from all walks of life. Ideally, our judges would represent every gender, race, age, sexual preference, and walk of life, in order to give every poet a chance to be heard by someone who can identify with their story. Realistically, though, we are always limited by who is actually in the room to listen.
How would you describe the difference between slam poetry and poetry read by a featured poet, or by a poet reading at open mic?
One is scored, one is not! Sorry, that’s a bit of a smart-mouth answer; but I do believe that slam is poetry, and any poetry can be slammed.
I’ve heard you say that when a poem is read out loud, it gets a whole new life. Were you quoting somebody? Would you care to elaborate?
I wasn’t consciously quoting anyone when I said this, although it’s a concept that’s well-known in the poetry world. I probably learned this from my own performance coach, the Boston Poetry Slam’s original SlamMaster, Michael Brown. The way a poem engages the ear is very different than the way it engages the mind’s eye, and even the poet may discover something about what the poem means and how it moves when it leaps from the page to the stage.
I’ve seen slam teams perform some unison pieces on YouTube. Is unison team performance a particular style that has a name? Is unison team performance an option that many teams choose?
What you’re talking about is “group” or “team” pieces, where poets perform a poem together by exchanging lines or speaking them together, or by creating a conversation or “skit” to bring a poem to life. It’s something you can only see at a team slam, like the National Poetry Slam. There is actually even a prestigious group piece Championship title, where the top teams at NPS advance to a separate Finals competition just for team pieces!