Poetry slam is more than a reading

Posted: Thursday, June 14, 2001

Poetry slams are all about energy.

"Nobody falls asleep during these things," said Michael Christenson, founder of the Juneau Poetry Freedom League and organizer of an upcoming slam. "It's a much more interactive and lively kind of thing than an academic poetry reading."

The slam, from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday at the Nickelodeon Theatre, is a sort of poetry competition. Poets sign up when they arrive, then are given three minutes to read or recite their pieces for the audience. Spectators are invited to voice their opinions - loudly.

"In the ones in Anchorage there's been a lot of cheering and booing," Christenson said. "When people start snapping their fingers they're indicating to you that they'd like you to move on."

Slams have been taking place in Anchorage for several years. Christenson has placed third at several of them, and will attend Poetry Slam International's national poetry slam in Seattle in late July. Because Juneau is more than 200 miles from a qualifying slam, PSI's rules say Christenson will not be affiliated with a team.

He hopes Saturday's event will help lay the groundwork for PSI sanctioned qualifying slams in Juneau.

"I have talked to the promoters (from) the Alaska Poetry League and they would like, in the future, to have a qualifying round for nationals in Juneau," Christenson said. "This is kind of laying the groundwork for that."

The event offers a very different sort of poetic experience. Slam poetry deals with more modern subjects than traditional poetry, and combines traditional poetry reading with performance art.

"The more you can aim your content toward something that (will) make a visceral connection with the audience, the better off you are," Christenson said. "It's basically a populist movement that's taking poetry out of the academic hands and giving it to the people."

Poems often deal with sex, humor and heartbreak, and can be read from notes or recited from memory. Christenson prefers the latter.

"It helps if you have your poem memorized, which is called 'off the page,'" he said. "You want to work to be off the page so you can interact more with the audience."

Judges will be selected from the crowd, and prizes will be awarded to the highest scoring poets. The grand prize will be a scholarship to a workshop at Perseverance Theatre's Cross Training Summer Writing and Performance project.

Perseverance Theatre Artistic Director Peter DuBois has offered all slam participants a half-scholarship to any of the workshops that don't involve poetry or other forms of writing, said Mie Christenson, Michael's wife and fellow event organizer.

Other prizes include gift certificates to Rainy Day Books, Hearthside Books and the Observatory book store.

Both the Christensons are longtime proponents of poetry in the Juneau community. Before the birth of their child, they put on frequent readings at the Observatory, and both continue to write and read poetry. The thrill has yet to wear off.

"I have been reading for a long time and I still get nervous," Michael Christenson said. "In some sense, every audience is new and unique. This one poem that could win one time might fall flat (another). In a certain sense, everybody's a newbie."

"What got us charged about this was a kind of underground slam that happened right before the tourist season started," Mie Christenson added. "There were probably about 25 people there. We're hoping for more."

The Nickelodeon Theatre, in the Emporium Mall, seats 80 people. Tickets are $3 at the door. Michael Christenson can be reached at mdchristenson@juneaualaska.com for more information.

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