Poetry Slam at the Bowery

By Ruby M Samuels

There’s candlelight and white paint and red wine. A chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and a dozen white tables surround a stage with a mike. The wall behind the stage looks like wallpaper stolen from Gertrude Stein’s salon; another bears an intricate sketch of some white washed wilderness, complete with a cliff and a cave. In the very back, a bartender watches the presidential debate on her phone.

It’s the semifinals. The MC explains the rules: Judges who are sitting in the audience must raise their sharpied score (0-10) in the air at the end of each performance.  At least one poet per round will be eliminated.

It soon becomes clear that these judges want to be as specific as possible. No two judges ever score the same, but rather are almost always within a decimal or two of each other.  The final tallies are shouted out as 23.7 or 34.6 instead of, say, 20.  The only explanation for such specificity must be a dedication to poetic weirdness—an artistic statement of its own.

The first poet to rise to the challenge is not just unique; her name is literally Unique. Her most applauded poem is called “In defense of ‘fuck.’” In two words, she is unapologetically female. Her poems describe the struggle of learning resilience after being implicitly taught to hate herself as a female. Here is one standout stanza: “I’d rather be called a bitch than a female / All I see when I look in the mirror is how I can break it.”


Unapologetically female, unapologetically unique.

One of the most cheered-for poets of the night was also one of the first to be eliminated. He sported a Zach Galifinakis-esque beard, camouflage cargo pants, and an incredible black t-shirt of a cat dressed as Batman. He puffed up his chest, threw his arms out and proclaimed, “The title of this poem is ‘oooooohhhhh.’” One standout line from this poet: “Making love is the perfect metaphor for death.”


But really… where on Earth can I get my paws on that shirt?

The finalists drew somber responses from the crowd.  One young black man said, “Being black is like being in a monster movie. Being black means never being able to break character… the big screen will hit back and keep hitting.”

Slam poetry, within just three minutes or even less, can express all the horror and weirdness and beauty of the world as seen through one set of eyes. New York City is home to places like the Bowery Poetry Club (the venue described here), Nuyorican Poet Café, and many more. If you live here, do yourself and the people in your life a favor and go to a show or invent a slam of your own.


Just look at that stage presence.

Ruby Samuels is an On-Campus Editor for Barnard Bite.


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