Mt. Airy Art Garage hosts inaugural poetry slam

The Mt. Airy Art Garage hosted the first of its new monthly poetry slam series events this weekend. The event drew dozens of art and poetry lovers and performers from Northwest Philadelphia; just as the venue’s founder Linda Slodki intended it to.

“The whole purpose of this space is to have an arts hub to bring artists out of isolation in Northwest Philadelphia,” Slodki said.

The Slam

At MAAG’s slam, poets performed multiple rounds of their best written works before an audience.

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The only rules are that the poems must be the original work of the author, and no musical instruments, costumes or props are allowed.

The audience is the judge. Five volunteer audience members have their names drawn from a hat and are asked to judge the poets based on performance, presentation and content by raising 0 to 10 scorecards after each round. At the end of the final round, the highest tallied score determines the winner.

The idea for hosting a poetry slam at MAAG came during one of the organization’s writers’ club workshops and was eventually organized by poet and art enthusiast Mary Ann Domanska and freelance cartoonist Jen Hemenway, both of whom were pleased with the turnout at the inaugural event.

Originally from Boston, Hemenway said she was drawn to Philadelphia — and specifically Mt. Airy — by what she called a welcoming and artsy vibe. 

“For a first time event, it was an awesome turnout. I think it was a great opportunity to bring in local artists and established poets and have a chance to eclectically meet up in this space and share our work,” she said. “I see myself really blooming as an artist here. I just find that the community here in Mt. Airy to be very embracing and willing to listen to ideas, and collaborate and work together.”

This weekend’s slam kicked-off with a word association presentation by Interim Dean and Associate Professor at Arcadia University Dr. Leif Gustavson, MAAG’s feature guest poet.

The Poets

A diverse crowd graced the MAAG stage on Saturday, including West Mt. Airy native Susan Wexler, and Joyce Dickens, an aspiring poet from Roxborough. Both were first time slammers.

Writing is Dickens’ passion and the MAAG slam presented an opportunity to share a poem about her 7 year-old son, Jeremiah, with an audience for the first time.

“I’m usually like a really shy person, but I wanted to try to open up and get some of my stuff out there. I got eliminated, but I’m happy. Once I got up there I felt so comfortable,” she said.

Wexler used the event as a platform to creatively express her feelings about her 2007 stage IV metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. She was the second runner-up to the competition’s winner, professor of music April Lynn James.

“It didn’t mean anything to me about prizes, I just wanted to express myself about my cancer and put a little funny spin to it. For people to come up to me and call me by name and tell me how much they enjoyed it really makes me feel good,” Wexler said.

Originally from New York, James moved to Chestnut Hill in September and recently started teaching music courses at La Salle University.

A sonneteer, James won over the audience judges by invoking her alter ego Madison Hatta.

The MAAG crowd was entertained to levels of raucous laughter and excitement from James’ animated performances. From the audience response and the welcoming vibe she felt at MAAG, James’ says she believes she’s finally found a home for her creative work.

“I had to leave New York to find a community that cares about what I do. This is a place where I’m like, wow, I could actually grow here.”

Future of the slam

According to Domanska, big things are on the horizon for the MAAG slam, including bringing in younger participants through partnerships with local schools, and eventually making the event a preliminary platform for poets who wish to participate in regional and national poetry competitions.

Slodki hopes the event will help to attract visitors to Northwest Philly.

“We just feel like we want to be on the map for people in the city and the region to know that we’re here. The more arts organizations and events that are here, the better. It makes the Northwest a destination.”

MAAG poetry slams will be hosted on the first Saturday of each month at 7 p.m. at 11 West Mt. Airy Avenue. Next month’s featured poet will be Iain Haley Pollock.

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