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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

B.O.M.S. showcases explosive talents

Published: February 6, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

<i>PHOTO BY Sophie Silverstein/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Sophie Silverstein/The Hoot

Four days ago I hated spoken word poetry. And then, on Tuesday, I innocently wandered into the Castle Commons.

Anyone who lives near that wing of our beloved fortress knows that on Tuesdays the night belongs to the Brandeis Open Mic Series. B.O.M.S. (as it is commonly known), a subgroup of VOCAL, is a club created by Jason Henry Simon-Bierenbaum ’11 and Douglas Nevins ’11 that seeks to provide budding artists, particularly poets, with a supportive environment in which to share their talents. One of its goals is helping to integrate arts and social activism on campus through poetry outreach projects and fundraiser performances. Last week the club conducted a poetry slam competition to select members of a Brandeis’ first slam team.

B.O.M.S. is not solely a Brandeisian institution, as both audience members and participants (though the line between the two is rather blurred) venture here weekly from areas like Cambridge and Lowell. Moreover, the club has featured numerous special guest artists such as slam poets Jared Paul and Erich Hagan, who have added to the club’s visibility. This week’s guest was Brian Ellis, a celebrated slam poet who claimed to reside in Jamaica Plain, although I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if I learned he was visitor from a nearby galaxy.

Ellis has been showered with accolades that are sure to elicit veneration from slam poetry devotees: he has been a member of the Cantab Lounge Slam Team, which won fourth place in the nation in 2008, was the 2007 Boston Poetry Slam Champion, and enjoyed a long reign as Cantab Champion of Champions.

Of course, if you’re a slam poetry skeptic like me, those awards probably mean nothing to you. Yet the gloriously exuberant, whimsical, spastic energy exuded from every bone in the man’s rail-thin body was enough to make me a believer. He started off with a poem entitled “Shopping Carts” which began in a soft-spoken conversational tone and suddenly burst into a manic expression of wonder at the mystical power of quotidian objects.

Each poem he performed featured the two distinct modes, namely, hushed introspection and expansive vitality, though to say these extreme poles of emotion gave his style a monochrome quality would be a grave misstatement. Rather, he infused each extreme of feeling with beautifully subtle shadings that endowed each display with a unique subtext of meaning.

For example, in “Eleven to Seven,” Ellis adopted the persona of a convenience store clerk describing the different categories of customers, from the high school kids to the truck drivers, who inhabited his world, punctuating each definition with just the right amount of sneering contempt or pathetic admiration. And as quickly as his words rose to a crescendo climax, they sunk into subito piano coda that resounded with the potent final lines, “My retinas scoured/by all the tiny unrecorded movements/of humans.”

Although Ellis’s performance was by far the highlight of the event, Tuesday night also featured a brief open mic period as well as a cover poetry slam competition. The former included half a dozen Brandeis students as well as a couple of local amateur poets reciting original work as well as that of other poets. The latter, which proceeded in elimination rounds, featured only interpretations of other poets, including authors as diverse as Billy Collins, Sylvia Plath, and Brandeis professor Franz Wright.

“In the slam we’ve had people who never did it before who just went in and tried some crazy things—good crazy…and decided, this is something I might like,” explained Simon-Bierenbaum. As a new convert to the world of slam poetry, I can only hope that “good crazy” continues to run rampant through and our campus and remains thoroughly undiagnosed.