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White Plains Sending Slam Poetry Team to Nationals

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - Jonathan Harris, 40, didn’t flinch when the founder of the former Phoenix theater Bram Lewis grabbed his hand, pinned his forearm against the couch, and asked Harris to pretend he was speaking to an 18-year-old version of himself while performing his “Haters” poem. A few minutes later, Lewis, 58, took on the role of a hater by booing, laughing, and walking out as Harris rehearsed the poem he will be performing at the National Poetry Slam in three weeks.

“When you set foot on the stage, it becomes really so cool because suddenly these avatars -- these gods and goddesses -- show up in the shells of these people. The messages are mythic,” said Lewis, who is coaching the White Plains team. “The idea of getting up and doing poetry live is theater. What I do is simply talk to them about what I know, which is theater.”

The four members of the White Plains national poetry slam team clustered around a coffee table in slammaster Eric “Zork” Alan’s and assistant slammaster Laura Vookles’ home Friday night. Alan, 47,  Vookles, 50, Harris, of Mamaroneck, and Mar Walker, 59, of Danbury, Conn. earned spots on the team by placing in the top three at one of the monthly 1 st Wednesday slam series held at the White Plains library and then getting the highest scores at a June qualifying slam.

They’ve spent the past five weeks prepping for the August 8 through 13 national competition in Boston where roughly 75 teams of four or five poets will compete in two preliminary rounds. Randomly-selected judges will send 16 teams to the semifinals Friday and whittle the competition down to four teams for the final bout on Saturday.

“They usually get a space for about 2,000 to 3,000 people for finals, which is small by Sting standards, but when you think about two or three thousand people going to hear poetry, that’s pretty impressive,” said Zork, a Macintosh consultant, touring poet, and poetry teacher. “Overcaffeinated, dumb, idiot, smart, great horrible -- the judges are random because it’s meant to be that way. You want the judges to give low scores to get the audience booing and rooting for the poet ... The whole thing is a mockery of a competition.”

All the practice can be tiring, according to Vookles, a curator at the Hudson River Museum. Vookles said poets often put themselves back in the moments that inspired them to write, as she did while training with Zork for the national competition in 2007.

“We all showed each other out poems and participated in selected which ones to do. I had a poem about my husband dying. They were like, ‘We really like that piece, but can you practice it all summer. I was like, ‘Yes it’s a really redemptive poem that I feel happy that I wrote.’ But after the whole summer it got pretty intense,”’ said Vookles, whose slamming grew out of the creative writing she took up during her husband’s last months.

The team agreed that the main goal of national slams was attracting more poets to the craft. Zork guessed that the competition moves from city to city every summer to maximize its conversion rate.

“The national poetry slam is filled with so many different people and types and styles and there is nothing that would put these people in the same room except for slam poetry,”  said Zork, who credits Lewis with inspiring him to perform during an acting for fun class Lewis taught. “You will have the cop and the drug dealer and the crystal meth user and the super shy person and the transgender person and the accountant and the old and the young.”

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