Slam Free or Die

Power of Poetry Illuminates the Diverse Human Experience
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Merlyne Desire reads her poetry during a recent Slam Free or Die event at Stark Brewing in Manchester in May.
Photos by Kendal J. Bush Photography

Poetry is the language of the soul, and great poetry opens a portal that yields keen insight into the human condition. The power of the spoken word inspired Mark Palos to found Slam Free or Die in 2005, an event that has been held on Thursday nights at Stark Brewing Company since 2011.

The event features a diverse group of poets who perform in a small function room adjacent to the brewery, broadening their understanding of race, sexual orientation, relationships and many other topics. Slam Free or Die extends this invitation to whoever wants to share.

The slam features local poets like Army veteran Seth Adam Smith, who recited a poem one evening in May dedicated to his daughter, “…crying in 3, 2, 1.” Other poets read works focused on the struggle to survive, lost love, domestic abuse, suicide, rape and even the “Me Too” movement.

Seth Adam Smith

Seth Adam Smith, an Army veteran, reads one of his poems at Slam Free or Die in Manchester last spring. (Photo by Carolina Valenti)

Sometimes the event draws celebrities. That same May evening, Amber Tamblyn, who starred in the TV sitcom, “Two and Half Men” and the film, “The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants,” and her partner, Derrick Brown, a screenwriter, came to Manchester to perform their show, “Pretend Is a Boat.”

At times, the atmosphere can feel heavy. The intensity and depth of the poems evoke strong reactions from regulars such as Ann Kinne, a transgender woman who has been attending the event for almost a decade. She originally joined the poetry slam community because it gave her a sense of belonging.

“This is the best sense of community that Manchester has, best as a queer community,” she says. “(There are) lots of friends hanging out, and Manchester is a very lonely place. There is not a lot to do, and it’s boring. This is probably the best thing that happens every week.”

It’s a community where Kinne felt it was safe to express herself.

“Coming here, I came out as trans, I changed my name, and it was all because this place allowed it,” she says. “There is literally, as far as I can tell, no other place in Manchester or like north of Boston where that would be facilitated.”

The crowd was still assimilating harsh confessions disguised in well-articulated words when laughter burst out with the mention of Taylor Swift. The picturesque description by one of the poets and having her dream to see Swift in concert come true (in pouring rain) sent the whole room reeling in uproarious laughter.

Merlyne Desire, an amateur poet who hit the stage for the first time that night, wooed the audience with sweet verse dedicated to the woman of her dreams.

For the main event that night, Tamblyn and Brown performed serious poetry laced with comedy and live imagination. They greeted the audience wearing motorcycle helmets. During their make-believe cross-country tour, they rode in the middle of the rain, encountered biker gangs, and endured other uncomfortable but hilarious experiences.

Their readings — sometimes funny, sometimes sarcastic and tragic — offered a glimpse of Hollywood’s hypocrisy.

“As a writer, I love the feeling of reading things that are very vulnerable in front of a crowd and an audience that are also doing the same thing,” Tamblyn said after the show. “They are also reading vulnerable things that they have never read outside, that live in their minds.”

Tamblyn also performed poetry about direct involvement in bringing the infamous Harry Weinstein to justice. She was one of the founders of the “Me Too” movement and one of the celebrities who physically appeared in court during the disgraced mogul’s trial.

She and Brown ended their show by slowly descending to the ground to sing “My Heart Will Go On” in what became a very “Titanic” moment.

“Here, you can feel people listening,” Brown said. “Like they were sucking in the words. It’s kind of inspiring, and as you can see, we had more fun, we cracked more jokes, we felt more engaged … you want to give more when the audience gives more, and this audience gives a lot.”

603 Diversity Fall 2023This article is featured in the fall 2023 issue of 603 Diversity.

603 Diversity’s mission is to educate readers of all backgrounds about the exciting accomplishments and cultural contributions of the state’s diverse communities, as well as the challenges faced and support needed by those communities to continue to grow and thrive in the Granite State.

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