Would the “Slam-Shadys” Please Stand Up!
The Slam-Shadys Prepare for the Annual Poetry Slam
Slam poetry, or spoken word poetry, is a popular representation of modern style poetry that allows poets to stand up and speak out for what they believe in; and here at Merrimack College our Slam poets, “The Slam Shadys,” have a great deal to say. “We take emotions and put them into words with the idea of speaking out on topics we feel need a voice. Maybe it’s a societal change, or just something we’ve experienced and want to share. It’s a very open space and group with no judgment, and we learn a lot from listening to each other and the poems that we hear from the community.” For us as writers and as shapers of social change, this is our way to be heard, and to have a finger on the pulse of the community. For now, our group is small, but every time we meet, we learn more about what it is we are doing and why—but sometimes it’s the why that is the most difficult.
We like to think that, if being a poet was easy, everyone would do it and we’ve learned that finding out who we are as poets isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s extremely difficult sometimes; we’ve had some really hard conversations about what we have the right to say—things that make us uncomfortable because we are in the place to stand up, but we don’t know if our voices, since we are only witnesses to many of those issues, will be welcomed. Talking about things like race and death, for example, means we have to be careful to empathize rather than identify.
Being in this group brings up questions about what we want to talk about and even more so, what we feel we can talk about. Race especially is one of those delicate issues. Here at Merrimack and especially in the writing community we aren’t the most diverse. People like to think that because we have so many international students and x number of students with non-white backgrounds that we qualify as an inclusive community. However, the truth is, we aren’t (and it’s not a bad thing; it’s just the truth). As an institution Merrimack is not nearly as diverse as it could be, and we as a team have talked about that, because when it comes to race, we can only ask questions regarding what it is like to be anything more than what we are. Slam is a safe place to talk about who we are, reflect on what we’ve learned in social justice classes, and what we’ve experienced in the community, and what we want to say about the knowledge we’ve gained. So while we cannot say that we know what it is like to be Latino, African American, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Japanese, Pacific Islander, or even European we find that just because we haven’t lived it doesn’t mean we don’t want to be able to empathize with others. It does mean, however, that we have to do a little more research and make sure we say it right. The story might not be our story but it deserves to be told.
Some people think that slam poetry is just an outlet for angry people to yell, but it’s so much more than that. Since the slam movement started in Chicago during the 1980s, real artists have found very real voices and since then the movement has really bloomed.
Slam has become the platform for all of us to talk more openly about Race, Sexuality, Feminism, Masculinity, Mental Illness, Illness, Wellness, Politics, Media, Philosophy, Life, and Death. It’s a way for us to say the things we’re often afraid to say, but as poets we need to stand up and do it.
Currently, the trend in slam poetry is relatively reserved for younger people, people like me and my team, people slightly older than us, people in minorities, and people like Neil Hilborn, who as a slam poet performs enthusiastically about his experiences with mental illness and how it has shaped him. In Hilborn’s 2013 poem titled “Future,” he states, “they keep telling me that seeing things that aren’t technically there is called disturbed cognitive function; I call it having a superpower!” Others like Marshall Davis-Jones, write about family experiences. In his poem “spelling father,” Jones tells the story of a perfect way to lose a spelling bee when he spells “father, M-O-T-H-E-R” for all the right reasons. Others, like Savannah Brown and Melissa May, write about their battles with body image and the way the world sees them. Savannah Brown’s “Hi, I’m a Slut” challenges the sexualization of women in media and Melissa May’s poem, “Dear Ursula,” turns the popular Disney villain into an iconic hero that she identifies with.
The great thing about what we’re doing is we’re learning and acting rather than just sitting on what we see—learning how to say what’s on our minds, how to be constructive, how to perform, how to make the most of the syllables and the beat of the words we use. It’s Battleship without the game board; it’s learning strategy, form, what works and what doesn’t. It’s strategic wordplay at its finest.
At each meeting, we typically start with either a prompt or by watching one or more clips from artists like the ones above. The topics of what the professional poets say migrate into ours and suddenly we are met with a new kind of experience, and a new way of thinking. So far we have written over thirty poems collectively, but that number is growing every day.
Here are examples of some prompts we have already used:
- Choose a minor character in a famous story or fairytale and write from his/her perspective. (To help us see a story from another angle/point of view that we may not have thought about before)
- Take a line from a song and use it as the first line or inspiration for your poem
- Write about a scene in a photograph. What’s in the picture? Who and what’s outside of the frame? What’s going on?
- A bunch of random emotions are written on scraps of paper and put into a bowl. Each person then randomly chooses one.
- Your poem has to reflect that feeling or emotion. Don’t tell others the emotion you chose and see if they can guess it.
…and from these prompts and so many more, here are some examples of what we have come up with so far:
Bank Shot Billiards
We. lurk. late -
Dim. street. lights.
Over cool. pool. halls
Old men dwell here like bank tellers used to,
Pockets thick, swindlers,
waiting for their own kind of transaction
But my money, is no good here - and suddenly I realize
I got myself locked into their vault like the crypt I am meant to die in
Old man strikes White ball.
White ball slides across green table
Clash, I grab a table,
Men snicker I know I have no place here, I move on anyway
I Grab a stick
Set up ball
Drop my briefcase
He grabs me
White cue ball
clicks on pool stick
Colors go flying with a clack,
back flat, hands held back
And suddenly I’ve been charged for a service
I had no intention of buying in the first place
What Insult is Worse
You look like a grandmother in that skirt she says to me, she eyes me up and down as if looking over a store mannequin and not liking what she sees frowns at the lace hem of my skirt swishing around my ankles in the spring breeze and I am offended because I am too young to pick out my clothes, and my mother is always right. At the recital, the girl in the front row crosses her legs, black dress to her shins when she stands up. Another girl crosses her legs and pulls the black skirt down before they tell her to sit like a lady. She complains that she is not the only one to cross her legs and her friends laugh and say that her skirt is too short to be lady-like in the first place. They snicker and call the other girl a prude. At twelve I don’t know what insult is worse. The girls line up in the hallway, arms at our sides, the boys stay in class. Ruler in hand they walk down the hallway checking to see if we have followed the dress code. My friend laughed in her hand-me-down skirt, two inches below the knee and two inches too long. Getting made fun of has its up sides she says, no one gets in trouble for being a prude. I look at mine, dress code, at the knee, a proper length the book says, but they make fun of me too.
A girl down the line gets her second warning, it’s too short, don’t be a flirt, they say. God forbid someone sees the skin above your knee, God is watching.Deja vu years later, seventeen, arms to her sides, dress above her fingertips last warning, they tell her not to be provocative and call her mom.College, first week, skirt to her fingertips she left to have fun, provocative is the goal.
College, first week, skirt to her fingertips she left to have fun, provocative is the goal. I see her in next to the police, the tears build in her eyes as she looks at me and says that he called her a whore before beating her I hear them say she was asking for it. She wasn’t.