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Buzz builds for Staten Island's first national poetry slam team

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STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Staten Island's literary community is getting louder.

In the hopes of sending the first team from Staten Island to the slam poetry nationals, a growing contingent of poets has been gathering each month at Richmond Hood Co. for a night of poetry, booze and friendly competition.

Slam is a spoken word poetry competition performed before an audience and judges. Each year, slam poets from around the country compete for the top prize.

Organizers from Staten Island's literary magazine, NYSAI, decided to throw their hats in the ring for the 2016 competition.

"Every other borough has a slam, why can't Staten Island? This place has voices just like every other place," said Eric Alter, who helps organize the Advanced Poetry along with borough artists Jenna Snyder, Thomas Fucaloro and Frank Williams.


Organizers were accustomed to the usual poetry nights around town, and that's how they met. But often, events like that are only attended by other poets. Poetry slam was something many of the organizers were already interested in anyway, and provided more of an entertainment value for the community, Alter said.

"Slam gives a little more flavor to poetry," Alter said.

It's also a reflection of the rest of the country's artistic preferences, said Fucaloro, a recipient of this year's Excellence in Art award from Staten Island Arts.

"Slam is the biggest, fastest growing literary movement in the country," Fucaloro said. "When you go to a slam you have people there who want to just watch."

To qualify for the national competition, teams must have evidence that they have a consistent audience, and pay a $500 entrance fee.

They also have to show they have a consistent venue: Which they do at the clothing store Richmond Hood Co. It's an unusual destination for a night of poetry, but it's helping the group build up a following, Alter said.

"We wanted to get to the folks who don't usually get a voice," Alter said. "So to do that, we've got to leave our safe havens and go somewhere we can be exposed to new people."


The first poetry slam was held in March, and had just a handful of attendees. It was discouraging for the group, which struggles with something many artists are familiar with on Staten Island: sustaining an audience.

"There was that feeling you get when you start stuff on Staten Island where it's like, 'Oh no there's not enough people who would support this,'" Alter said. "But a lot of people started coming, so it's been good."

By last month's gathering, there were more than 50 people crammed into the clothing store, Alter said.

Each monthly gathering includes an open mic component, a featured poet and then the poetry slam competition. It's laid-back, and certainly not restricted to poets.

"I can go to a slam, have a drink, have a laugh, hear something that surprises me or makes me cry," Alter said. "It's like watching your favorite show."


Here's how the competition works: Each month the poets compete against each other, gaining points based on their performance. Those points accumulate over the year and the top eight poets will get to compete in finals. The top four poets for that will be the group's 2016 Advanced Slam Team, who would then compete at the national Poetry Slam.

The team isn't sure if they'll stick with the name "Advanced Poetry" if they make it to nationals — people here would understand that it's a play on the name of the borough's newspaper. But elsewhere, it might come off as arrogant or intimidating, Alter said.

And intimidating is not something they want to be.

"Just because the word 'poetry' is there or the word 'slam,' is there, don't be afraid of that," Alter said. "It's not this highfalutin thing or this scary thing. It's just people expressing their inner feelings, about life, about anything. I think people will find they can relate to that, as humans just sort of grappling with the mystery of life."

Julie Bentsen and Thomas Fucaloro performing their group piece.


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