I Was a Teenage Slam Poet

Or how a poetry reading saved my life.

Oct 11, 2011 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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Pretty much every subculture I got into as a teenager, I got into way too late. I missed Riot Grrrl, did my first 'zine in 2001 and spent my high school years heavily into slam poetry, which had had its cultural moment when Maggie Estep appeared on MTV's Spoken Word Unplugged in 1993, at which time I was 10.

In 1994, the poets of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe published the awesome compilation of their work entitled "Aloud." "Among me and my poetry-loving friends, "Aloud" was our bible, our most-quoted scripture the poem by Bob Holman that begins "It's 1990/ & Nelson Mandela is free!"

Like most teenage girls, I'd been scribbling poetry in my journal for years by the time I went to my first Open Mic night, Soul Food poetry reading in Norman, Oklahoma. I was maybe 14? My dad dropped me off and picked me up a few hours later. It glimmers in my mind next to the first time I tried cocaine -- I remember them both as impossibly perfect evenings in which I was gorgeous, charming and beloved by everyone.

There's a lot about spoken word that makes me laugh now, most notably the silly inflections, which I recently was remidned of by Survivor Contestant Semhar, who kept herself company at night on Redemption Island by reciting her poems in that dah daaaaah dah dah dah dah dah daaaaah cadence everybody started reading poetry in around 1991. (If this post gets 100 Facebook likes, I'll do a video performing one of my 14-year-old poems just like I used to do it. It will be humiliating.)

But at the time? Man, that shit saved my life. This was before the days of easy phone pics and videos, which is a small tragedy in this instance, because I did the damn thing. I have a sneaking suspicion it was cute as hell, too -- me being all of 14 or 15, clad in 4-inch maroon velvet heels and say, strap-on fairy wings and a tiara. I got a lot of attentions from BOYS, which was pretty much my goal in life at the time.

(I do realize that I wasn't technically a "slam poet," since I only competed a handful of times, but I wrote and performed in the style of one, and it makes a better title.)

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And I had some measure of talent as a writer, which was fostered and encouraged by people older than me, most notably the organizers of Soul Food Open Mic Night, a couple named Kerri and Jeremy, who took me under their wing, gave me my first drink (shhhh....) and without whom I might not be a writer today. Mentor weirdo teens, guys! They need it.

I think it was at Soul Food that I also first learned the power of sexuality over men. My father came to see me perform once, when I'd been given a 45-minute featured poety slot, and he mentioned that he wanted a cigarette.

"I can get one," I said, and proceeded to lean coyly over a table of boys and flirt my way into a Marlboro Light. The creepiness of trying to impress my father with my womanly wiles is not lost on me.

Every Tuesday night for years, I dressed up, I performed, and I soaked up all the attention. And that's how I found out there were places in the world where, unlike in high school, your weirdness would be appreciated. People liked me there, and thought I was talented, not just a "dyke loser" or a "freak" like the kids at school. Boys -- real human boys, a lot of them -- thought I was pretty! So what if the ones I went to school with spent more time slamming into me in the halls than checking me out.

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And I no longer write poetry, but damned if I didn't learn a lot from it. Like how to write and write and write some more, and that the first 20 things will probably suck but you have to write them to get to 21. And how to be fearless in your writing and then brave enough to share it. How to sell it when everyone's looking at you.

And of course, how to score a free cigarette when you need one.  (Cleavage, eye contact, don't forget to smile.)