Reflections on Slam

Once more, with feeling.
Once more, with feeling. // Creative Commons

“I just have a lot of feelings!” a slam poet exclaims to cheers from a knowing and appreciative audience at the Yale Regional Poetry Slam.

The poet’s exclamation is part of the Princeton team’s group piece, a satirical commentary on slam poetry itself that uses the format of an ESPN news segment to accuse its performers of “finding meaning in their pathetic lives,” “smoking cigarettes alone, but in clear view of nearby crowds,” and “exploiting their lives from a safe emotional distance,” among other “performance-enhancing” sins. The poem uses gentle mockery to isolate exactly what makes the performances at the Regional Poetry Slam so powerful: unsparingly personal content explored with wit, precision and control.

The Yale Regional Poetry Slam is held before a fiercely enthusiastic audience in Sudler Hall’s semidarkness. The event’s four teams—Yale, Princeton, Wesleyan, and SUNY Oneonta—participate in four rounds that have been ordered so that each team has a chance to perform first, second, third, and fourth. When it comes time for a given team to perform, their chosen performer is sent from the audience to the lighted stage, where he or she holds us captivated for the next several minutes before leaving the stage to rowdy cheers.

“The universe let me play doctor, pulling the strings of fate through your flesh,” declares Emtithal (Emi) Mahmoud ’16, a member of Yale’s slam team, when it is her turn to perform. Her poem is a powerful testament to the weight and ambiguity of the medical profession. Like all of the evening’s best performances, it comments on something so close to the poet’s heart that you don’t know how she’s commenting at all, approaching a “lot of feelings” with a somehow graceful and observant eye. “You can’t fix anyone,” Mahmoud’s poem concludes. “You can mend their bodies and hope that it’s something.”

If smoking a cigarette is playing with (emotional) fire without getting burnt, then the slam poets really are “smoking cigarettes alone, but in clear view of nearby crowds.” An example of this is Yale’s Dave Harris ’16 who performs one of my favorite poems from the evening: “Love is trying to play landlord in a house of cards,” he declaims bravely from the stage. After the show, he explains to me how the Yale team was formed: a preliminary slam, open to all students, was held in October. The current Yale team, representing the top five competitors from the preliminary slam, consists of four members from the slam poetry group WORD and one (Mahmoud) from the group Oye! The process has successfully built a winning team: Yale emerges victorious at the end of the evening.

The event is emceed by slam poet Jive Poetic, who opens the show with four of his own poems. He goes on to explain the slam’s scoring system: the show’s five judges are audience members with whiteboards. After every performance, each judge evaluates the performance on a scale from 0 to 10, writes his or her score on the whiteboard, and holds it up to be tallied. The audience’s job, Jive Poetic makes clear, is to “influence” the judges—which they do, enthusiastically heckling any score lower than approximately 8.8.

Even the judges, however, aren’t exempt from the evening’s theme of fearless self-expression. “Believe in yourself!” Jive Poetic exhorts a judge facing an especially critical reception of her score. “Believe in yourself! You gotta say it twice, it reinforces it.” I have to admit: After an evening of watching college students reaching inside themselves, pulling out whatever they can find—including deeply personal stories and agonizingly messy emotions—and precisely and memorably examining themselves in front of a sea of people, “Believe in yourself” sounds a lot more inspiring and a lot more challenging than it did before the slam. It is a testament to the performers’ skill and bravery that, once again, they have taken something that might have been a cliché and made it fresh and real.

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