Arts poetry review

A night at the Cantab

Poets take on the spotlight at the Cantab Lounge in a cozy open mic, a feature by Nancy Huang, and the Last Chance Poetry Slam

Weekly Wednesday Poetry Nights
Doors open at 7:15 p.m., open mic starts at 8:00 p.m., feature performs at 10:00 p.m.
Show is 18+ (ID required)
738 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA

A woman scribbles rapidly into her old, worn-out notebook in the dim light of the bar. There’s a world buzzing around her, but the only things she sees in her peripheral vision are the dark colors of the counter and the clear bubbles in her drink. She’s focused on her writing, finding words for the feelings pulsing through her.

A name is called, and suddenly, the spell is broken. She heads to where she was summoned, a little stage in the front of a tiny arena of warm faces and hungry ears. She flashes a smile as the spotlight hits her face, as if she was accustomed to its glow. She begins to speak, her words flowing out. Her well-crafted phrases inspire awe, and her ironic quips elicit snaps from the audience.

I watch as the unassuming woman who, moments before, was sitting behind me tells a story like a song, and I wonder how many more poems she has scribbled in that notebook. She is only one of many poets I notice throughout the night engaged in similar activity. Some people are furiously writing in notebooks, others are typing away inspired notes on their phones, and many are simply enjoying the performances, sitting back and appreciating the creative efforts of the open mic poets.

The Cantab open mic lasts for two hours and is actually the most well-attended portion of the show, frequently selling out before the feature performance. Anyone can sign up before the open mic to read their own poetry, prose, advertisement for a poetry venue, one-act play, etc. Nothing has to be memorized, and there is no pressure whatsoever to perform a certain type of way. The themes and topics covered by the poems greatly vary; I heard poems about hurt, happiness, love, violence, growing up, family, sexuality, and culture. There were also many light-hearted poems with whimsical word choice and topics. The audience was welcoming and the atmosphere was very supportive, with fellow poets commending other poets on the courage it takes to go up on stage and share. As the night progressed, even the bartenders and hosts had performed fantastic poems, contributing to the family-style vibes of the event.

The featured poet for the night, Nancy Huang, also had a lot to say about the atmosphere. She noted to me that “crowds have a lot of power over performances” and “everyone at the Cantab was so warm and open.” Nancy Huang is a winner of the 2016 Write Bloody Poetry Chapbook contest, an Andrew Julius Gutow Academy of American Poets Prize, a James F. Parker Award in Poetry, and more. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Vinyl, Bodega Magazine, TRACK//FOUR, Winter Tangerine Review, The Shade Journal, and others. At the Cantab, she read poems from her debut poetry collection, Favorite Daughter.

Nancy grew up both in America and China, and her collection focused on ideas such as belonging, cultural struggle, and harmony. Her poems are easy for many to resonate with, as we live in a world nowadays where a lot of people are living in places and societies very different to those they had grown up with. What I found most interesting and engaging about her poems were the interjections of Google Translate clips and layers of dictionary definitions, playing on the meanings ascribed to multiple Chinese and English words.  

When commenting to me about how she thought the night went, Nancy said, “I think the event went so well! I was very nervous to be onstage and performing but the crowd had really good energy which really made me feel better about being up there.”

Following the feature performance, Simone Beaubien, the SlamMaster, came up to me. Simone has operated as the SlamMaster for the Boston Poetry Slam at the Cantab Lounge since February of 2004. She acts as the host, booking manager, press agent, webmaster, and coach for the annually selected slam team. She herself competed at the National Poetry Slam from 2004 through 2010, excluding 2009. After a six-year hiatus, she returned as a member of the 2016 Boston Poetry Slam Team.

Simone asked me to be a judge for the night’s poetry slam in which the final qualifiers for the team selection rounds would be picked. At first, I thought she surely must’ve had me confused for someone else, but she assured me I did not have to be an ordained poetry critic. All she looks for when picking slam judges from the audience are people who don’t have any connections to the competing poets and will comprise a panel of diverse backgrounds and tastes. She explained to me that we would be hearing original poems under the length of three minutes, and the performances would have no props, no costumes, and no musical accompaniment. By the time that the audience’s clap at the end of the poem had diminished, I would have to show Simone a score between 0–10 that I had given the poem.

Judging was initially stressful, but soon I got lost in the beauty and humor of the competitors’ poetry, and I really enjoyed myself. By the end of the night, the group that would be competing in the Team Selection slams were set. This competition has been around for quite a while; the Boston Poetry Slam was born in May of 1991, imported directly from slam’s birthplace, Chicago, by Michael Brown and Patricia Smith. The goal was to promote new voices in performance and competition poetry. In 1992, the Wednesday show became permanent at the Cantab, becoming one of the three oldest slams world-wide. The show continues to be a hub for the New England performance poetry scene, inviting in high-quality featured poets like Nancy Huang and even hosting a couple of the National Poetry Slams.

Over the next few weeks, the Team Selection preliminaries and finals will be taking place, and there is an excellent lineup of featured poets coming to town, including anticipated poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib on Feb. 7 and Ariana Brown in a special NO ROMANCE open mic on Valentine’s Day.