The Women of the World Poetry Slam Comes to Brooklyn
On Creating a Safe Space for All Voices to Be Heard
Slam poetry—aka, spoken word poetry, performance poetry—has been an important cultural force for many, many years now. From its early iterations in Chicago in the 1980s to its spread around the world since, slam poetry has become a veritable category in its own right, with its own aesthetics, tropes, and, thanks to Poetry Slam, Inc., international competitions.
Since 1990, the National Poetry Slam has taken place in a different city each year, and an Individual World Poetry Slam was added in 2004. In 2008 Poetry Slam, Inc. introduced the Women of the World Poetry Slam (hereafter WOWPS), a rich and essential event, which this year takes place from March 9th to 12th in Brooklyn. During the four days of WOWPS, 96 of the best slam poets from around the globe (limited to, according to PSi’s mission statement, those “who live their lives as women… including gender non-conforming individuals”) will read, spout, quip, jab, shout, prattle, sing and croon—and they will inspire you in deep, unimagined ways. Slam poetry is a vital art—for women, poets of color, and LBGTQ writers, yes, but for every person invested in hearing other people’s voices, for those who may not find themselves in the characters of canonical literature, for anyone who yearns to expand their notion of this earth, and all the wildly talented, intensely effective artists who dwell within it.
I spoke to members of WOWPS Brooklyn’s coordinating committee, a wonderful group of badass people who are commendably dedicated to the success of the event but more importantly the purpose of its mission. Rather than clutter up the piece with my questions, I instead created a composite conversation using their responses. These are their voices.
CECILY SCHULER (WOWPS Volunteer Coordinator): Seattle, WA. Early 2009. I was mid-twenties, in my third year of medical school, and had just lost my first girl crush in a car wreck.
MAHOGANY BROWNE (WOWPS Event Coordinator): Slam isn’t only one face in the family of poetry. It is a gateway into a world much more varied and voluminous.
CECILY: My friend took me to the BENT Institute’s Annual Showcase, and I just lit up.
MAHOGANY: But it is a beautiful place to learn how to speak to different walks of life at the same time.
CECILY: Queer person after queer person got up on stage and read something they had written.
MAHOGANY: Where else can we find a place to share one story and make that make sense to hundreds of people in three minutes or less?
CECILY: I didn’t know what this was, or how to do it, but I knew I wanted to do it too.
LAUREN ASH WILLIAMS (WOWPS Host Committee Chair): I’m a New York native, but I moved around after I graduated college. And when I came back to the city, it didn’t feel like mine anymore.
CECILY: I started writing with BENT a few months later. My teacher was Tara Hardy, a renowned spoken word artist, community leader, and BENT’s founder. She inevitably got me to the slam and on the mic.
LAUREN: Before 2011, I thought slams were special one-off events. I didn’t know anything about slam seasons, or teams, or group pieces. I had no idea that there was a national poetry slam, or an individual world poetry slam, or even a women of the world poetry slam.
CECILY: BENT’s mission was overt: to put queer voices and stories on the map. To document stories and first-person narratives that were going unnoticed.
LAUREN: The New York City slam community changed everything for me. The slam community made a place that was my home actually feel like home.
CECILY: So you could say that I got my start as a writer in order to “save” myself—to sort out and make sense of things, to put them down, both literally on paper or into a mic, and figuratively, so that there was more space to move onward and progress in life in a more fully realized way.
LAUREN: And the slam I went to became my church. Every week I would walk into this unassuming bar in Manhattan where poets would show up and hug each other and love each other, and cheer each other on as they competed together. And every week, I rediscovered my ability to be moved.
CECILY: That’s the power and grace of slam for me—that access to self-saving. It’s a specific container, with its own set of understanding. You get three uninterrupted minutes of people’s time to say what you need to say—to them, to yourself. You get three minutes of witness.
LAUREN: Every week, I felt like I was having conversations with God. At a bar. In a city where it is too easy to forget that you matter.
CECILY: The writing and performance of a piece—that’s the self-saving part.
LAUREN: I mean, isn’t that the very definition of magic? It should be.
Obstacles, the First
CECILY: Patricia Smith, for example. Author of award-winning poetry books. Sought-after professor of poetry at graduate collegiate levels, and at conferences around the world. A recipient of a Guggenheim Award.
Still. Gets. Billed. As. A. Slam. Poet.
She is, by far, the most acclaimed poet in the poetry slam scene, but when billed as such outside the scene, the implication is obvious. “Slam Poetry” is still deemed second-class, street, unrefined. The insular world of academic poetry wants nothing to do with us.
LAUREN: I don’t think we can overestimate the power of being heard.
CECILY: I was speaking to an editor at the conference who said of their own accord, with a dismissive smirk, “Slam poetry isn’t even poetry.”
LAUREN: Of having space carved out for your own voice. Of having the room to figure out what your voice sounds like and giving it the freedom to flex its muscles.
CECILY: I asked them to tell me about that, because I didn’t understand the distinction. They said that “real poetry” came down to the skill and care that the poet took in making line breaks.
LAUREN: Creating dedicated places for the marginalized, oppressed and too often forgotten or ignored is a social imperative.
CECILY: Line breaks! This statement forever condemns poetry to the page and to those who could see and read, which is stacked with classism and ableism, at best. They then went on to comment about the emotionality of the poems heard at a poetry slam. Again, this sentiment is laden with oppression, and has some dire underlying racist, classist, and ableist tones.
LAUREN: One of the things I love most about WOWPS is that it says to women and gender non-conforming poets, “Here. This space is yours. You don’t have to fight for it. You don’t have to scream over the other voices that usually dominate the conversation. This space here, we made it just for you.”
CECILY: The venues are always huge and gorgeous and on the fancy/historical side. It always makes me feel like we’re special. It reminds me of the worth of these words and the specific lives of the poets who brought these words here. There is something inside me that solidifies with purpose with each finals stage I attend. I’ve never been on Finals Stage or in the back, so I don’t know how it goes back there, but outside in the audience, it’s probably the warmest reception most of us will ever get.
Obstacles, the Second
LAUREN: When you’re putting multiple-day events together, there are so many moving pieces. Obstacles come from every which way, all the time and out of nowhere.
MAHOGANY: The most difficult part has been pulling together the powers that be and the mission of the event with little seed money.
LAUREN: There are venues and sponsors and media partners and colleagues and ticket holders and competitors and volunteers and designers and… you know.
MAHOGANY: We were able to garner support from the community which allowed us to do so much: promotions online, publicity in the community and social networking, [all of which] has been extremely helpful for spreading the word.
LAUREN: And sometimes you’re playing a game of “hurry up and wait” because there are decisions that are outside of your control that will impact how you choose to move forward, so you have to be on your p’s and q’s but also have your patience game on lock, while also being charmingly persistent.
CECILY: Each of the five of us [the three interviewees plus April Ranger and MaryCae] on the organizing committee have had our own personal moments of challenge.
LAUREN: It’s challenging to keep all the balls that need to be in the air in the air.
CECILY: What’s both fantastic and sustaining is that, whenever it inevitably got rough, we each just spoke of it to one another. We let the process be nerve-wracking and disappointing, and jubilant, and successful. We see each other and cheer each other on and forgive each other all the time. The entire time. We take a lot of deep breaths and just keep on going.
LAUREN: My favorite moments during slam are when the audience is brave enough to join me on whatever journey I’m trying to take them on. When I say something and they respond audibly with a grunt or a groan, or “Yesss.” You know, those moments when they might as well be standing on the stage with me. When we’re having a conversation. It’s especially meaningful when I’m performing a piece that reveals some of my ghosts. It changes everything when someone in the audience does or says something that tells me I’m not alone.
CECILY: Here’s the kicker: Poetry is by nature visionary. (Not visual. Visionary.) It has the power to articulate previously unmade connections, and therefore introduce the old world to a brand new one. I would venture to say that any work that does this is poetic in nature.
LAUREN: Slams, and performance, specifically, helped me grow more comfortable with owning my own body. Of taking up all the space I need. They also helped me to engage my writing in ways I never thought I could.
CECILY: Poetry is the power of what’s possible. Poems read at a poetry slam, particularly a regional or national event that is being recorded, has the possibility of reaching millions of people. Poets who started in the slam scene are “crossing over” into the academic world constantly—we are in your MFA programs, at your literary functions and poetry readings and national conferences, in your classrooms as educators.
LAUREN: The things you can discover about yourself when you have the opportunity to stop fighting, even if just for the three days of WOWPS—that is gold.
MAHOGANY: My greatest experience is touring internationally and explaining to a class full of students, whether in Australia, Germany, UK or Brooklyn, there is a world that loves poets. There is room for us everywhere.
CECILY: Hell, you can minor in Poetry Slam at Berklee School of Music.
LAUREN: At the end of the day, you just want to make sure that the people who are trusting you with their time, their hearts, their support, are getting what they need from you. That you’re doing right by them. That’s all that matters, really.
CECILY: It’s going where it needs to: into the hands of younger and younger people. Into classrooms and boardrooms. I am hopeful that the poetry that comes out of slam will find its way into the hands of policymakers—or that the poets themselves become policymakers!
I guess all I’m saying is that if slam wasn’t working it would go away. And clearly, whatever the poetry slam is, it’s working.
Featured image of Mahogany Browne by Kia Dyson.
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Mahogany Browne, Event Coordinator
The Cave Canem and Poets House alumnae is the author of several books including Dear Twitter: Love Letters Hashed Out On-line, recommended by Small Press Distribution & About.com, Best Poetry Books of 2010. She has released five LPs including the live album Sheroshima. Browne has toured Germany, Amsterdam, England, Canada and recently Australia as 1/3 of the cultural arts exchange project Global Poetics. Her poetry has been published in literary journals Pluck, Manhattanville Review, Muzzle, Union Station Mag, Literary Bohemian, Bestiary, Joint and The Feminist Wire. Brown is also the publisher of Penmanship Books, the Nuyorican Poets Café Poetry Program Director and Friday Night Slam curator and currently an MFA Candidate for Writing & Activism at Pratt Institute.
Lauren Ash Williams,
Host Committee Chair
Lauren Ash Williams is a Brooklyn-based poet and lover of people. She was a member of the 2013 louderARTS National Poetry Slam team and co-founder of The Heroes (a Seattle-based arts production company). Lauren has performed in poetry-dance collaborations at The Alvin Ailey School, the Moore Theatre and The Men in Dance festival in Seattle. She has had the privilege of leading writing and performance workshops for both youth and adults in Seattle, New York and Washington, DC. In the daylight hours, Lauren does strategy and communications work with start-ups and non-profits.
, Volunteer Coordinator
Cecily Schuler is a 2016 MFA candidate at the Pratt Institute in Writing and Social Activism, in Brooklyn. A 2013 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference contributor in non-fiction, Cecily’s work has been published or is forthcoming in The Offing, Great Weather for Media, Wicked Banshee, Fairy Tale Review, Ellipsis, Duende, and Fire Stories: Further Thoughts on Radically Re-thinking Mental Illness. Cecily is the current Slam Manager/Co-Curator of Union Square Slam, a weekly poetry series and slam in New York City. Cecily’s chapbook, 296, chronicles the author’s experience living with multiple mental health diagnoses, and is available from Next Left Press.