Boston Hosts This Year's National Poetry Slam

If you're in Beantown this week and don't want to spring for Red Sox tickets, you should check out this year's National Poetry Slam, which starts Tuesday in nearby Cambridge. The so-called "Olympics of slam poetry" will bring in more than 76 teams from around the country, along with teams from Canada and Australia. They will face off in preliminary bouts throughout the week with the winners advancing to the semi-finals. The finals will take place on Saturday at Boston's Berklee Performance Center.

If you aren't familiar with Slam poetry, it's nothing like what you learned in English class. A great slam poet isn't just a good poet -- he also needs to have some serious storytelling, acting and comedic chops. You get a good sense of this from Shane Hawley's terrific piece about Wile E. Coyote from last year's semifinals. Hawley performs for Soap Boxing, from St. Paul, Minnesota -- the team that's won the competition two years in a row.

The art form has grown exponentially since a Chicago construction worker named Mark Smith started it up in the mid-1980s (last year's event drew a crowd of about 15,000 people). But Slam poetry has held tight to its informal, underground roots. Judges are still selected randomly from the audience, and the key to winning is still winning over an audience that's more than happy to share its opinion.

In addition to the main competition, the week will feature more than 60 side events like open mic nights and advice forums, along with more eclectic events like the "Nerd Slam" -- held, fittingly, at MIT -- and the "Harry Potter vs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Slam," which is guaranteed, at least, to be a spectacle.

But the week's most popular side event is sure to be the Haiku Death Match, which pits one poet's wit and concision against another as they trade 17-syllable zingers. Anything goes in these colorful duels, and competitors need to either consistently blow the audience's mind with deep thoughts, or, more realistically, just be really funny. A warning though: these death matches aren't for the squeamish. Poets often aim for the lowest common denominator. You'll hear a barrage of off-color humor that would make Matsuo Basho roll in his grave. Vancouver's "haiku champion" Duncan Shields shared this one with the Vancouver Courier last week:

Penis enlarger
Worked too well. Now I can make
Balloon animals

You can watch some highlights from the 2010 haiku death match here, and you'll find everything you need to know about this week's Slam at the event's official website.