Poet as rock star, with band as backing
In a dim, red-lit room with low ceilings and Persian rugs, the metallic hiss of a cymbal, the low, somber notes of a bass and the plaintive, winding melodies of a saxophone evoke a spooky, almost otherworldly atmosphere in which J*me, the night’s featured poet, prances, half stumbling, around the stage, spewing fine mists of beer into the air while performing. Two young women sits with crossed legs at the edge while J*me produces clouds of beer above them. The women, who apparently now have beer in their hair, do not seem to mind.
“This is not your average open mic: These poets are budding rock stars,” said Jeff Robinson, organizer of the Lizard Lounge’s weekly poetry events. He also leads the Jeff Robinson Trio, which improvises jazz while the night’s featured poet performs, elevating the performances beyond that of the typical spoken word. “The poetry inspires the music, and the music inspires the poetry,” he said.
Many of these poets appear so comfortable performing with the band that someone just wandering into the Lizard Lounge during the performance would assume the poet and trio had scripted and rehearsed the show.
Sundays at the Lizard Lounge includes three parts, with an official start time of 7:30 p.m. and an actual start time closer to 8:30 p.m. First is the slam, a contest in which poets perform and are judged by people selected from the audience. Judges give scores based on the quality of the poetry and the energy of presentation. Each round, poets are eliminated until there are two squaring off against each other to determine the winner.
Robinson says he likes judges who are there for the first time and may have had little or no exposure to poetry slams. This forces the poets to be relevant for people who are not part of the “scene.”
After a short break, the featured poet performs with Robinson’s trio.
The night concludes with the open microphone segment, which gives the audience the chance to share their poetry, but not compete.
Eric Darby, one of seven national individual finalists at this past summer’s National Slam Competition in Albuquerque, N.M., has been featured at the Lizard Lounge and frequently competes in its slam. On a recent Sunday he gave a mesmerizing performance of his poem, “My Father’s Hands,” beautifully describing the psychological and emotional cost of upward mobility.
“The poetry/jazz combination at the Lizard Lounge is unique, and well-known around the national performance poetry community,” Darby said. “I moved to Boston two years ago, and I had been hearing about the Jeff Robinson Trio for years before then. They amaze me almost every week.”
Cambridge is one of the few cities in the country that supports two nationally certified poetry slam teams. Both the Cantab Lounge and Lizard Lounge send teams to compete in the national poetry slam competition. “I’ve read all over the country, and heard poets from every major slam scene, and Cambridge is right up there in terms of writing quality, performance talent and diversity of participants and styles,” Darby said. He also notes that although the poetry slam is usually a good show, the night is really about the featured poet and the open mic.
While the poems offered convey the vast subject matter one would find in the written word, political poems (in the broadest sense of the word “political”) are most prevalent.
“I believe in the power of words to create social change, and when that is combined with the universal appeal of music, the potential for that grows exponentially,” said CD Collins, who has been working as a poet in Boston for 15 years and recently released an album of spoken word with music titled “Subtracting Down.” “When I say social change, I don’t mean speeches, which is an argument of the head; I mean a deeper power to move, the power of the heart; the power of realization on so many levels one is inspired to see more clearly.”
“When I hear a poem … I want my world to change; I want to see more than I saw before,” Collins said.
The Lizard Lounge is at 1667 Massachusetts Ave., between Harvard and Porter squares. There is a $5 cover and a minimum age of 21 for entrance.