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POETRY

With the Cantab all but gone, Boston Poetry Slam rewrites its way to the future

Boston Poetry Slam hosted its weekly open mic nights at the Cantab Lounge for 27 years.
Boston Poetry Slam hosted its weekly open mic nights at the Cantab Lounge for 27 years.Marshall Goff

There was no ceremony to mark the final open mic at the Cantab Lounge last spring.

The basement bar was known to sell out on Wednesdays, despite the venue’s many flaws. The stairs were old and narrow and there’s no elevator. The walls were dark and stained from leaky pipes. The kitchen burned down in 2007, limiting the food options to whatever patrons could carry inside with them. But the drinks were cheap and plentiful, and on cold nights, all that body heat made the room warm — cozy.

On March 11, 2020, however, the crowd was sparse, about the size Boston Poetry Slam would see over the holidays or immediately following a snowstorm. Even though no one knew it yet, COVID-19 had already put the organization’s future at the Cantab into question. Nearly one year later, the BPS community is left reeling over the loss of its longtime venue — while also puzzling through the art form’s digital future.

Former BPS host and Cantab bartender Melissa Newman-Evans remembered performing a half-hour piece about the Cantab around eight years ago. “A lot of it talked about the room, the space, the dirty bar basement...”

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Newman-Evans moved away from Boston six years ago, but some of her most treasured memories belong to that bar. “My husband proposed to me on that stage, closing the open mic,” she said. “I grew so much as an artist on that stage, and I’ve had some of my biggest artistic failures in and around that room.”

When it comes to the Cantab, Newman-Evans’s story is hardly unique. The BPS called the Cambridge bar home for over 27 years. In that time, countless marriage proposals, first performances, and last performances unfolded across that nondescript stage. Some of the poets who performed there joined BPS’s national slam team. Others started hosting open mic nights and bartending for the Wednesday night shows. It’s hard — almost impossible — for most to imagine the organization without the Cantab.

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Melissa Newman-Evans was a host and bartender at the Cantab for a decade.
Melissa Newman-Evans was a host and bartender at the Cantab for a decade.Marshall Goff

But by March 11, the BPS scene was lacking its usual life. MIT and Harvard had canceled in-person classes that morning, and organizers weren’t sure whether to postpone the evening’s spoken word event. BPS regular Myles Taylor remembered missing the open mic portion of the night, showing up just in time to host the slam. Host Cassandra de Alba was manning the bar, and recalled laying it on thick with the hand sanitizer.

By July, the Cantab Lounge was shuttered and put up for sale, and while it has not yet been sold, BPS members do not expect to permanently return to their longtime home. For the first time in almost 30 years, the BPS organization is on an indefinite hiatus, postponing regular events until everyone is able to gather in person again.

“It feels like we don’t have a home anymore,” said de Alba, who also met her partner at the Cantab. “It’s not the first time we’ve had to think about the Cantab closing, but it’s the first time it’s been obviously real.”

And so far, replicating a slam community virtually has been nearly impossible, de Alba continued. Slam competitions are all about a poet’s communication with the audience: Imagine a line of poetry hitting just right and the room filling with stomps, snaps, and grunts. No amount of fire emojis can replace that.

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“It’s kind of weird to be performing to these sad little Zoom screens,” de Alba said. “People are trying to react in new ways, but it definitely feels very different. Instead of lingering after the show and putting away the chairs and talking to stragglers and shooting the [breeze] at the bar for a minute before we close up, you just close your computer and you’re alone in your apartment. It feels alienating and very different than an in-person show.”

Cassandra de Alba has hosted open mic nights at the Cantab since 2007.
Cassandra de Alba has hosted open mic nights at the Cantab since 2007.Marshall Goff

Taylor tried hosting virtual poetry readings with another poet at the beginning of the pandemic. They facilitated open mic sign-ups, booked featured poets, and even hired a virtual “bouncer” to watch for Zoom bombers. All Taylor wanted was to replicate the communal feeling he experienced at the Cantab.

“At first it was a really fun time running these shows,” he said. “But slowly, everybody got Zoom fatigue.”

The defeat was crushing, Taylor said. “My ego was really bruised. I took a risk and people just started not showing up. I wanted so badly to try to make that Cantab environment myself online and you just can’t really.”

Longtime Cantab host and bartender Adam Stone took another route, hosting weekly writing workshops since the beginning of the pandemic. “Instead of just getting the people from the Cantab who live in Boston, I get usually people who’ve been from the Cantab, going back to the early ’90s,” Stone said.

Despite the success of his event, Stone agreed that it’s hard to imagine BPS without a physical space. Still, he sees a post-COVID future for the group with at least some virtual element.

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“I think it’s going to be a hybrid,” Stone said. “The people who don’t like going to bars because they don’t drink; people who just aren’t overly social, but really like poetry events and even slam can be like, Oh, I can stay at home.”

It’s hard, if not impossible for so many other members of the BPS community to imagine a future for spoken word online, especially without the feeling of gathering at the Cantab. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Maybe BPS won’t have virtual slam competitions — they were moving away from that anyway after Poetry Slam Incorporated, the nonprofit that held the annual national slams, foundered in 2019. Maybe BPS will just have open mic nights, or host featured poets. The options are endless.

But the idea of losing BPS entirely is almost unfathomable, said Newman-Evans. “I think losing that space is heartbreaking. But if it gives room for growth, then that can only be a good thing. Losing that space doesn’t take away anything that happened there.”

Look at the last night at the Cantab, and that much is clear. No one knew they were saying goodbye. And yet, the few people who were there snapped and clapped and celebrated the poets who showed up. As de Alba manned the bar and Taylor was still making his way there, poet Adam Falkner performed in person at the Cantab for the last time.

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He remembers the apprehension, anxiety, and fear of gathering in a small basement while the world was so shaky. But he also remembers excitement, happiness, the wonder of reading work in that cozy bar.

“For a lot of poets, slam venues are the spaces that have helped us survive,” said Falkner. “But I am optimistic. While the Cantab may have sunsetted, I think the Boston Poetry Slam will be as resilient as the community it serves.”


Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at natachi.onwuamaegbu@globe.com.