I am standing in front of an audience that I am likely to never share a conversation with. Especially outside the nauseatingly pungent smells of coffee beans and electric cigarettes. I am here to perform my first original piece of slam poetry, I am vulnerable. I am 17 years old and wearing a sweatshirt that dates to my middle school years. I am going on stage to slam my first original poem and I am wearing a wrinkled, stained green hoodie that just barely meets the waist-line of my skinny jeans. I am defenseless.
Café 360 is located 10 minutes away from my house; I have biked by this place for years. Its tanned face and weathered porch dimly lit powder blue sign and blacked out doors flirt with my favorite fiction novels. I could never quite grasp why I had felt this attraction so strongly. Until I stood center-stage in one of its many faintly lit rooms, I would have to wait.
Over the years, I have developed an incessant desire for others to understand my perspective. I have boiled “walk a day in my shoes” down to ten minutes. Yet, my voice within slam poetry, in both the technical and cultural sense, failed to develop until recently.
That first slam poetry performance was mostly an exploration of my nervous tics and tremors. It was as if all the fifteen strangers present were knowledgeable and rehearsed on my deepest darkest secrets. Nevertheless, this open-mic transformed into the most staggering experience of my life thus far. I now fathom the hype behind that “passion” thing that everyone seems to be talking about.
Poetry came to me in the form of a homework assignment. Yes, an h-o-m-e-w-o-r-k assignment. I am at the ripely smelling, self-conscious age of 13. In the opening minutes of fourth period English, my teacher suddenly projects a PowerPoint presentation titled “Poetry” onto the whiteboard. I feel a trickle of sweat run down my temples when someone asks what my favorite color is. I wear torn up Converse sneakers and a green hoodie, three days out of the five-day school week. I have not the slightest idea of my identity and its relationship with the “feelies” that I so desperately avoid. But all I must do is go home, write a slam poem and bring it back in the next day. Simple, right?
It had become difficult to distinguish my peach colored carpet from the crumpled paper that invaded it. Each metaphor and detail had pushed the shoulders of my suppressed feelings into the spotlight of a crowded room. I had to get my revenge somehow and spiking crumbled balls into the ground only seemed appropriate. I rephrased and reworked the piece down to the last possible minute. Words are so utterly powerful, who in their right mind would risk being misread?
Shoprite. I was buying M&Ms when I had spotted from the corner of my eye a sign-up for Café 360’s open-mic night on a bulletin board. Somewhere between my chocolate craving and buckling into the passenger seat of my mother’s minivan, my hand grabbed a purple-inked pen. I scribbled my name down so quickly it was nearly illegible. I knew I had to write a spoken word poem. I knew even more that I had five days of back-to-back academics and sports. My nerves set in and made their presence known. They crawled their way up my throat and into my sentences, into my movements. Three days later, a quirky teenager in a newsboy cap would call me up to bat. This is Robby, we like Robby.
My heart catapulted through the floor and knocked the confidence right out of me. I have never come so close to sprinting full speed in public. I take five steps onto the overly polished wooden stage.
I mutter, “okay…I am going to read this poem I wrote and please just bear with me.”
I am holding onto this microphone like a drunk who is incapable of maintaining their balance. I trust this mic like it is a friend who I once took soapy baths with during childhood. The first line escapes from my mouth, and my brain switches into autopilot mode. Like when one drives home at the end of their workday without thinking, I memorized this slam poem right down to its potholes.
“Where else have you performed?” He stood at 5 feet 11 inches and wore a checkered flannel, baggy light washed jeans with the knees cut out and leather Doc Martin boots. He critiqued me rapidly and used his dirty fingers for guidance. It was then that I realized I had never taken this much of an interest in someone before. His name is Robby, and he was the teenager wearing the newsboy cap. I have traveled all along the East Coast with him telling our slam stories.
The both of us have faced our largest crowds when performing slam poetry side by side and hand in hand. Robby is where the commanding hand gestures, tone changes and slam creations of mine all began.
You see, all pieces have a beginning, middle, and end but not necessarily in that order. My beginning took form in that first performance’s final lines when the silhouettes in front of me snapped in unison. Since then, every unfamiliar face, knitted beanie and appreciative grin keeps this passion of mine alive and breathing. I no longer have to remember to inhale… exhale… and inhale. When I am falling apart, writing and performing slam poetry is what holds me together.
Looking for places to write? Check out this piece!