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House Slam Is Boston's First Slam Poetry Team To Head To National Competition

The 2015 House Slam Team (from left): Porsha Olayiwola, Erich Haygun, Janae Johnson, Melissa Lozada-Oliva and Jonathan Mendoza. (Beza Mehiretu)
The 2015 House Slam Team (from left): Porsha Olayiwola, Erich Haygun, Janae Johnson, Melissa Lozada-Oliva and Jonathan Mendoza. (Beza Mehiretu)
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“It’s free. It’s fun. It’s not in Cambridge. We cater to a different community.”

So says Janae Johnson, co-founder and slam master of the House Slam, housed at the Haley House Bakery Café in the heart of Roxbury’s Dudley Square.

As they come upon the anniversary of just a single year of existence, the House Slam is celebrating an enormous accomplishment: They’re sending a team of five poets, including Johnson, to compete at the 2015 National Poetry Slam in Oakland, California. NPS is the world’s largest congregation of performance poetry, with teams hailing from all over North America and Europe. Hosted in a different city each year, NPS is the premiere event for slam artists and enthusiasts to showcase their work, network with an international crowd and contribute to the growing movement.

For the House Slam team, it also signifies — technically — the first time in the history of the competition that the city of Boston will be represented. (The Cantab Lounge and the Lizard Lounge have both sent teams, but those two venues are located in Cambridge.)

“I think there is something significant about [Haley House] being the first Boston team actually from Boston,” says Erich Haygun, a member of the House Slam and an experienced slam poet, community organizer and teaching artist. “We made the conscious decision to stay in this space, in Dudley, in Roxbury, with the Haley House mission behind us. And that’s different from simply saying that we’re going to start a poetry slam. It’s the mentality that you bring to a space, that I think is less about trying to decide what is the best poetry, and more about what is the best community.”

More than just a restaurant, the Haley House Café is a community center that dedicates itself to providing space and opportunities for the diverse members of its neighborhood. Its mission is to provide a series of programs to empower people seeking financial independence with on-the-job training, and opens its doors after-hours for local artists, community organizers and activists to gather.

The House Slam came to be out of an earnest desire for an “alternative space” — and it was more of a happy accident for Johnson and her fellow co-founder, a four-time Lizard Lounge slam team veteran and youth coach Porsha Olayiwola. The possibility of starting their own venue was something they’d only talked about in passing, until a chance opening in Haley House’s summer open mic schedule offered an opportunity to make their dream a reality.

“Myself and Porsha had been slamming for the Lizard Lounge and the Cantab, and we kind of wanted a space to call our own. I think there is a mission around the word ‘safe space’ — we call it ‘safe and sacred.’ We just take care of our own, and enforce no hate speech, and we try to make it more of a family feel,” Johnson says, describing the House Slam venue.

She and Olayiwola felt that Roxbury, and Dudley Square in particular, had the potential to become a vibrant nexus for the slam community — if they could provide an outlet for that community to dig in and grow.

“Dudley Square doesn’t always get a lot of love,” Johnson explains. “It was a good opportunity to collaborate with the Haley House, which does amazing things for the community, consistently. Things that people don’t really give them enough credit for. It was an amazing collaboration in terms of the way things felt and how things came together. We had two trial dates over the summer and it went really well and it was really crowded, so we just continued. Lizard Lounge and Cantab are just two completely different spaces, and you get two completely different feels with them. And if you’re not at one extreme or another, it’s just hard to go back and forth to those venues and find a place. And that’s not to say that Haley House is perfect, but it’s an alternative.”

“We’re so fortunate that Haley House really wants to support us,” Haygun adds. “Not every venue is so tied into why that venue exists in the first place.”

The support that the House Slam team receives from their venue is so total, in fact, that the Haley House Café is entirely sponsoring all five of its members in their NPS competition — Haley House footed the bill for their travel to and from Oakland, their accommodations and their registration fees. Now, the team wants to show them some love back with a fundraising celebration.

“It’ll be an extended open mic. We’ll invite back some of our past featured guests, we’ll have a DJ, we’ll have the team perform. It’ll be a celebration of our existence,” Johnson says. “People don’t have relationships for a year — and we’re still here.”

“It’s going to be outside, in the parking lot,” says Haygun. “We could have millions of people. Millions will fit in the parking lot — if you believe.”

At the heart of slam is the feeling of community. Johnson and Haygun are optimistic that, while young and imperfect, the House Slam signifies more than just a team, just a venue — they want to follow the example that the Haley House Café sets forth, and stay true to the alternative vision that their venue was built upon. In Johnson’s words, “Poets right now, they’re activists. [Slam is] really forcing people to think outside of the box about what’s going on in their communities.”

“There’s a saying in slam poetry that ‘The point isn’t the point, but the point is the poetry.’ When I think about my personal reasons for doing it, I think that the point isn’t the point, the point is the people,” Haygun says. “The people that you do this with, that share the idea of ‘We’re going to get up and just talk about ourselves, or our families, or whatever, and we agree to all sit here and give each other this space to do it. That’s the thing that makes me want to show up every other Friday at the House Slam.”

The Year of the House Slam: Anniversary Celebration will take place on Friday, July 10, at 6:30 p.m. at the Haley House Bakery Café in Roxbury. A more detailed event description can be found here.

Spencer Shannon’s work has appeared in DigBoston, the Improper Bostonian and most recently The ARTery. Find zir on Twitter at @suspencey, or check out zir website.

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