The Boston Poetry Slam kicked off in May of 1991, imported directly from slam’s birthplace, Chicago, by Michael Brown and Patricia Smith. The slam first started at T.T. the Bear’s in Central Square in Cambridge, Mass., as an add-on to the existing reading Stone Soup, the longest-running poetry reading in Cambridge. The slam migrated to the Book Cellar in Porter Square later that year, and, in January of 1992, expanded to a twice-weekly schedule in order to accommodate the burgeoning popularity of the event. On October 16, 1992, the stage at the Cantab Lounge became one of seven host locations for that year’s locally-based International Poetry Slam, and the Wednesday show settled into its since-permanent home, making the Cantab show one of the three oldest slams in the world and a fixture of the international poetry scene.
The Boston Poetry Slam ran on Wednesdays and Fridays at the Cantab Lounge from 1992 to 1995, when poetry slam began to take a back seat to the venue’s signature open mic. Praised as “the best open mic in the English-speaking world,” the now Wednesday-only open began to shine as a mecca for touring performance poets and local readers alike. The historic head-to-head 8×8 series and Champion of Champions slam events were moved to the latest portion of the evening, which added yet another qualification for the many talented poets seeking a prestigious Cantab slam win: the willingness to close the bar on a Wednesday night.
In 2004, Michael Brown stepped down from the position of SlamMaster, turning the post over to 2001 slam team member and then-Champion of Champions Simone Beaubien. The weekly Wednesday show continued to thrive, acting as a hub for the New England performance poetry scene and consistently drawing high-quality featured poets and up-and-coming slammers. The Boston Poetry Slam later served as the host city slam for the highly successful 2011 National Poetry Slam and 2013 National Poetry Slam.
Boston has been represented in competition at every National Poetry Slam since 1991 and every Individual World Poetry Slam since the event began in 2004, winning team championships in 1992 and 1993 and sending a total of six teams and nine individuals to the Finals stage. For a more detailed championship history, try the Wikipedia page for the National Poetry Slam, or read a bit more about the show’s history, and the history of poetry slam in general, at Kurt Heintz’s Incomplete History of Slam.
In 2019, Poetry Slam, Inc. permanently folded, thus ending the reign of the National Poetry Slam circuit. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic closed all in-person shows, involving a closing and re-opening of our beloved venue, the Cantab Lounge. Boston Poetry Slam: Extremely Online was started in March 2020 by Myles Taylor and Lip Manegio as a way to keep the community going virtually. Extremely Online ran until August of 2020, and created several months of successful shows, including a 13-hour live Poetrython to raise money for the FANG Collective Bail Fund. Helmed by Dawn Gabriel and Myles Taylor, poetry returned to the Cantab Lounge’s basement in March of 2022, allowing a new, localized era of poetry community to begin.
As the third longest-running poetry slam in the world, the Boston Poetry Slam community has borne witness to nearly thirty years of triumph, tragedy, scandal, heartbreak, and glory, one Wednesday at a time. Consider this your personal invite to join in, either to read or listen in, at the weekly open mic and poetry slam.