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Slam competition to feature poetry as performance

For Sumit Bhansali, the beauty of poetry is in the delivery. He knows his May 10 "Poetry Slam/Verse Reading Competition" is not the first poetry slam to be held at MIT, but it is the first to emphasize the performance more than the actual poem, he said.

A doctoral student in the Sloan School of Management, Bhansali's research interests lie in areas such as technology strategy, wireless software and online advertising. But his big passion is the theater. He's done some acting in California and in the Boston area, and he said his interest in performing is the driving force behind this event, which he is producing single-handedly.

"I was looking for an event that recognized the importance of poetry as a performing art," Bhansali said. "I found other poetry slams, but the entire focus seemed to be on the writing. I thought it would be cool to have the emphasis on artful delivery."

For the May 10 event (4:30 to 6:30 p.m. in Kresge Little Theater), participants don't have to read an original work as they do in most poetry slams. A participant could, for instance, recite anything from a haiku to a Shakespeare sonnet--or perhaps even a nursery rhyme.

The level of difficulty of a poem or verse, will, however, weigh heavily in the criteria used by the three judges--two instructors in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies and a local actor/director--who will evaluate the readings. One verse can be more difficult to perform than another, says Bhansali, if it requires many changes in tone because of "sentences that go on and on," or if it lacks an obvious rhythm.

Bhansali likened it to the extensive training in "text reading" that is required of Shakespearean actors, in which they spend many hours "perfecting the art of delivery"--figuring out the right places to pause and the right places to put emphasis. "If you're emphasizing the wrong thing, you won't do a good acting job," he said.

Participants will be judged on their diction and clarity of speech, their facial expressions and energy, and the "overall impact" of the performance. Three cash prizes ranging from $100 to $300 will be awarded.

Pregistration is required to participate in the event, which is open to the MIT community. For more information, see or e-mail

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 5, 2004.

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