The Boston Poetry Slam at the Cantab Lounge is proud to announce the 2016 Boston Poetry Slam Team:
1. Neiel Israel 83.3
2. Zeke Russell 80.3
3. Simone Beaubien 79.7
4. Mckendy Fils-Aimé 79.1
5. Bobby Crawford 78.9
6. JR Mahung
7. Meaghan Ford
8. Joshua Elbaum
9. Manvir Singh
Poets in bold finished in the top five at Finals to make the team.
It was a windy and wicked Wednesday last night as a determined crowd lined up for the venue’s highest-stakes slam: the 2016 Boston Poetry Slam Team Selection Finals! Nine poets entered, but only five could leave as the official 2016 Boston Poetry Slam Team, and tensions were high in the dank little basement.
Wasting little time, 2015 slam team member and 2016 host Sean Patrick Mulroy launched into the slam, taking the stage as though it were his home (which it is: we don’t care what MFA program he’s a resident for) and shepherding bout manager (and 1994 slam team member) Tom Slavin’s hard-won judges smoothly into a well-lubricated team of five people who share no opinions or values and each want to control the outcome of the show. Welcome to poetry slam!
The night started with the judges terrifyingly panning strong work from two poets who had dropped from the series: Nora Meiners and Marshall Gillson, each taking the stage to warm up the already blisteringly hot room. That left Bobby to try to pump up the scores: invoking a high-energy performance of Dave of Liquor Basement got him a three-point jump, but still left the early-round slammers to wallow in the 24.x range, with no idea when or if the judges would show more generosity. Toploading was the name of the game as poets brought the tried-and-true to the stage: Meaghan with the wrong Matt, Manvir with last week’s open mic poem On Forgetting How to Be Happy and Make Friends, and Joshua with last year’s Grudge Match poem on the prompt of “back in the day.” Scores held until Neiel hit the stage fifth with a rollicking poem, complete with ribald hand gestures, about the dick, skyrocketing totals another 3 points and winning the hearts of the judges.
The hearts of the crowd, though, belonged to JR, who followed with his required new poem in the series, on the subject of skin, earning just enough to top the poets from early in the round… After which Mckendy, unshy about letting the room know that he intended to make this team, lent the full force of his performance chops to a rendition of Whistling Vivaldi for a 28.7 that would mark the highest score of the night. As the waters receded, Simone held on with another Grudge Match callback on the subject of a Boston sports “hero,” and Zeke finished up the round with a strong and solidly planted narrative on summering in junkietown.
At the end of the round one, Mckendy held a commanding lead with Neiel the only poet within striking distance; Zeke was 1.7 behind, leading the middle of the pack over a tightly grouped Simone, JR, and Manvir; and Josh, Bobby, and Meaghan trailed less than a point behind. Unlike round one, rounds two and three were unseeded, random draw, offering a mix in the rhythm, but no break, as Sean rolled right into the next ninesome.
Rocking a tough draw (first in the second round, and last in the third), Neiel performed a haunting, short form piece about watching a church burn, nearly doubling her score and looking good for a mathematical lock for the team. Joshua brought the first love poem of the night with his piece referencing the end of the Mayan calendar, satisfying the judges’ itch for sweetness (or, okay, apocalypse) and earning a 26.9, just a few tenths behind Neiel. Wait, was this a new baseline for these so-far-consistent judges? Nope: one of Manvir’s strongest crowd favorites, Eduardo dancing inside the alien machine, failed to engage the gatekeepers of the scores, and the rest of the round was a motocross course of ups and downs: Zeke drawing the judges in with his brother Ethan, only to have them draw back into their slimy low-score shells for an on-page poem from Mckendy, his second brand-new piece of the series.
Simone followed suit with another extra-credit brand-new page piece, somehow earning a score bump for informing the crowd that bartender Judy probably wouldn’t have liked them anyway… But the round’s winningest poem came from Bobby, kicking the mic aside and dropping to his knees for a dramatic new edit of Church, and topping Neiel’s early score by 0.6. JR and Meaghan both managed to hold score afterwards, JR with a well-received ode to Space Jam, and Meaghan with a newer, second-person piece on staying and leaving.
At the end of round two: Neiel was still on top of the world with a full point lead over Mckendy; Zeke hung 1.3 points back that with Bobby a scant 0.4 behind him. Simone, Josh, and JR were another point back, tightly grouped at the fifth spot, with Meaghan and Manvir on the ropes and needing a few extra things to go right in round three.
Looking to seal his place on the team from the one-spot, Mckendy brought Scrambled Eggs to the stage, earning a middling score. Would it be enough? Bobby followed with a high energy bang-bang(-bang), setting the tone for the third round and putting himself in solid striking distance with most of the round yet to play out. Manvir brought a joyous call-and-response poem to follow, earning his highest score of the night and dozens of loyal followers in the crowd. Having saved the most nerve-wrackingly best for last, Joshua finally ticked his new poem requirement for the season with a wrenching and personal narrative based on family card games. With five poets left to go, Mckendy and Bobby were looking strong, and the rest of the show was left to be anybody’s game.
Here’s where the slam got a little crazy: Simone elected to make the first and only crowdwalk of the evening, laying out a response poem about high school gymnastics old enough to enroll in second grade, and earning (a tie for) the second highest score for the night. Knowing a good setup when he sees one, Zeke took this opportunity to reclaim his less energetic performance from last year in a top-notch presentation of (yell it with him) HIGH SCHOOL IS BULLSHIT! In a shocking development, terrific crowd response pushed Zeke over the time limit for the slam’s only time penalty, but his consistency over all three rounds still earned him a lock for the team, leaving Simone and Bobby to bite their nails for the last third of the round. Meaghan came strong with an exceptional performance of Match Heads, but couldn’t make up for earlier math, pushing Simone up to the roster and leaving two more spots for Bobby, JR, and Neiel. Having made a strong strategy decision to save a well-known poem for late in the round, JR put forth a solid performance of his grandmother’s entreaty for him to eat, but fell just half a point short of Bobby.
With Neiel last to go, and with a commanding lead that only required her to score a 23.4 to make the team, poets in the know were wondering less how she would score and more how she would decide to finish out the slam. She chose a strong standby and the night’s first and only persona piece, Unborn, which earned her a tie for second individual score and a definitive win at the end of the night. Hot damn!
The team, confirmed and excited: Neiel Israel and Zeke Russell will enjoy their first year as BPS team members, with player-coach Simone Beaubien earning her first spot on a roster since 2010, and Mckendy Fils-Aimé and Bobby Crawford returning from the 2015 squad.
As always: heartfelt thanks and applause to our eliminated poets, JR Mahung, Joshua Elbaum, Meaghan Ford, and Manvir Singh. Special thanks to our hosting and management staff, including the long-suffering Kieran Collier, flawless score-and-timekeeper and leaver of lovingly snarky notes in the score spreadsheet. (Also, Sophia Holtz, we see you, back from New York for a night to round out the in-house reunion of the 2015 slam team.) What a good night.
Next week: OH YES, THERE WILL BE A NEXT WEEK. And it will feature Jonah Comstock, long-time regular, first-time feature, and philosopher, musician, and poet to boot. We’ll also continue our series of speed slams with the sixth in the series. See you there!