Slam Poetry Is Helping People Work Through Their Pain

by Taneesh Khera

In this column, we travel the US exploring the minority languages, dialects, and people who call it home. Then, we step back to see what effects they might have on society at large. Today, the spotlight is on slam poetry.

What is slam poetry?

I figured I’d go to the Starry Plough in Berkeley, California to find out. Started in 1999, they boast of having the longest running slam poetry competition in Northern California.

The room was full. Several rows of chairs in front of the stage, and tables and chairs around the perimeter, were all occupied. People were standing, and at one point also sitting on stage behind the microphone. It was the semifinals and everyone came for the poetry.

The poets taking the stage represented the margins of this already diverse pocket of the country. Black, white, brown. Indian, Latino, Asian. Men, women, trans, nonbinary. Lesbian, gay, straight, queer, bi. These were the faces of the competition.

They came to tell their stories, to spit their truth. Five members of the audience, chosen at random, score 1 to 10, decimals allowed and encouraged. Winners went on to the finals. Winners of the finals then represented Berkeley in the national poetry slam competition. This year, 2018, it was in August in Chicago.

What makes slam poetry unique from literary poetry? In slam, the poet and the people create a dialogue together. The slam poet directly faces the people they’re speaking to, and the people respond by scoring the piece after it’s done. And during the performance, the crowd cheers and claps and snaps, or else sits silent, awed. Whatever the reaction, it’s energy the poet can then use in real time while performing. It’s like a dynamic conversation between the slam poet and the audience. The slam poet speaks and the audience listens and responds. The literary poet writes, and later on, the audience reads.

Put another way, there’s less distance between a slam poet and the people.

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Slam poetry and pain

I’ve often wondered, like other artists I know, whether pain is necessary for creation. The truth is, suffering and art have coexisted for centuries. You might be familiar with the “tortured artist” trope, with its very own Wikipedia page, featuring a self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh with his right ear bandaged. Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf—these are extreme examples of suffering artists.

What I saw of slam poetry in Berkeley feels similar in some ways, like a manifestation of pain as art. In four minutes on stage, a group of young, queer college poets of all races but mostly of color, are sharing their pain in the form of poetry. The stories they told were as diverse as they were, but the pain was what they had in common. And, they could share it safely, with an audience this responsive.

One talked of the intricacies and implications around eating wontons with the family. “The mix was good today. Translation: I’m sorry for the things I said about you.” This touched on the cultural divide among generations of immigrant families, and how food can bridge the gap.

Another, finalist Reggie Edmonds: “I’m turning Richmond into a paradise, Oakland into an oasis … I wish I could make this city into a motherland for all of Africa’s forgotten children … But instead I am watching another black boy dying because he fought for what he believes in.”

One poem by featured poet Clementine Von Radics, began sourly, “My hometown is mostly rednecks. And my hometown has no library,” and ended with humility, “My hometown makes me very suspicious of anyone who values education over kindness … My hometown makes me hate people who are unkind to the waiter.”

And one, Collin Edmonds, began a poem as an open letter: “To the white boys who make monkey noises outside their car: How cute … Did you expect me to be scared? Because I am. I’m scared that other black boys would hear your voice and forget the power in their own.”

It was personal and poetic, the crowd rapt and snapping throughout.

Slam poetry to the poets

At break, most of the poets hung around outside in circles of different sizes, a closeness that carried offstage. I asked some of them questions, and it transformed into a conversation about race and other issues we face as a society today.

What does slam poetry mean to you?

“For me it means community,” Victoria Morgan, finalist, responded. “[It means] getting to share this very personal art with people and [in] a space where I feel safe.” She continued, “We have this communal joy even in our sad poetry. [We] support [each other], but also [have] this kind of amazing respect for each other and our personal journeys and growth. Slam poetry is just like the performance of whatever we’ve got going on but whatever happens, family first I think … [it’s] a place of nonjudgment … but also support.”

And, can’t safe spaces like this bar in Berkeley, turn very quickly into sanctuary cities and states at the national level?

What are the marks of a great poet or piece?

“Authenticity,” said one poet, Andy Heald. “If you don’t believe a poet, it’s nothing. And it has to be their story … It can’t be someone else’s … you can’t be taking space from someone else who deserves that space to tell their own story. You need to tell your own.”

Reggie Edmonds added quickly, offering another perspective on authenticity: “Because how are you going to write the best poem about something that you’ve never experienced? [White] ally poems …”

Wait. If you don’t already know, ally refers to “any group standing as advocates for other groups fighting for equal rights.” Here, Heald and Edmonds are referring to white poets (white allies to black people and to the Black Lives Matter movement) who perform poems about the injustices blacks experience.

Here’s his whole quote:

“[White] ally poems in general tend to do terribly not because they’re terrible people or poems, but because you look at a person saying, you know, ‘black this, black that,’ but if they’re not black, well what experience do you have that backs up what you’re saying? Whereas when a black person says, ‘being black is actually fucking hard.’ You’re just like, ‘you know what? You might have a point.'”

Heald interjects, “And if a white person is talking about race I want to hear what they have to say about being white, and what that means for them.”

What do you take away from the pain aspect of slam? Is slam a way for you to process pain?

Edmonds explains, “In slam there’s definitely this culture of ripping our old wounds apart and open, and bleeding on stage, but a lot of us don’t teach ourselves how to stitch those wounds back together.”

He then circles back to my earlier question, what makes an exceptional poet or piece? To him it’s “someone who can get up there and say, ‘These are the scars that I have but I don’t have [to] rip them all up to show you I have them. [It means] being able to get on stage and spit your truth in a way that brings out those raw emotions, but it doesn’t break you.”

Poet Calailia Avery adds of pain: “When you go on stage and read a poem about your own pain, you’re reclaiming it, you’re taking it back. You control the narrative. You’re saying this is something that I’ve gone through, I get to name it, I get to tell you what it was like. No one else can do that for me. And reclamation is one of the most beautiful parts of it [slam poetry]. Part of that healing process.”

How profoundly empowering.

Slam poetry and speaking up

Edmonds mentioned that like the founder of slam himself, Marc Smith, the slam scene until recent years has been straight, white, and male. Or, at least straight and male. “We’re about to decolonize slam,” Edmonds spoke of himself and his fellow poets, queer college kids of color.

It’s even made its way into popular culture. The Netflix original series Dear White People discusses race openly over the course of its two seasons. In it, one character, Reggie Green, performs a poem after being held at gunpoint by university police. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal … unless you’re loud and black and possess an opinion, then all you get is a bullet … Fred Hampton. Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd. Reggie Green?”

So, slam has become a safe space where people of color can name wounds for a chance to heal, a place where vulnerability is accepted and encouraged. Slam culture in the Bay is a rising up of minority groups, together, to tell their individual stories. It gives voice to those outside the dominant, masculine sphere.

And, it’s about time. Over the years, we’ve seen so much of straight (white) male life. (Mostly) white men have overpowered as directors and featured roles to small screen programs, to history, politics, literature, art, and so on and so forth. It all glorifies white men, with white women in the shadows, far and away above both women and men of color. And, not all of those men were great. Some were even bad. Take these once-glorified men—Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Bill Cosby—finally being charged with sexual assault and outed for sexual misconduct.

The change in the faces of slam is like the first rain after several years of drought. It’s what we’ve seen with the #TimesUp, #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter movements. People are listening now. It’s our time to speak up.

Want more?

For more of this column, read these: Louisiana Creole | African American Vernacular English | Northern Cities Vowel Shift | Borders.

Taneesh Khera is a poet, writer based in Oakland, CA. She’s also a linguist trained in the US, Mexico, and Chile. Se habla español. See more of her work here:

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