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Girls – and Women -- Are Slamming the Poetry Scene

by Lauren Zuniga


Every year at the National Poetry Slam poets from all over the country gather to tell their stories. A poetry slam is a competition invented in the late eighties by a Chicago construction worker named Marc Smith. Poets generally have three minutes to present an original poem and are given scores by five judges picked randomly from the audience. Any given night, you can hear about an abusive father in Omaha, migrant workers in Albuquerque, levees breaking in New Orleans, a school teacher in Oakland. It is where the real news is reported. It is impossible to go home unchanged.

In 2007, I came from competing in the National Poetry Slam to a failing marriage and a life that had previously revolved around matching drapes and scrubbing jelly off the walls. I had been a stay-at-home mom for three years. I had stacks of poems about dishes and folding towels and everything that was real to me. Poetry has always been the way I make sense of the world. Suddenly, I was thrust into this new "sport" and feeling more alive than ever.

The first night back in our local slam venue, a little bar in the arts district of Oklahoma City, I performed a poem with more stomp and fervor than I ever had before. After the slam, a man in his seventies, a regular poet in our venue, came up to me and asked if he could talk with me. He proceeded to give me a speech about how I need to use my womanly grace and leave the "exploding" for the boys. He tells me about Katherine Hepburn and how the women of his generation could do so much without saying anything at all. I thought about his comments all night. He was a sweet man and I knew his heart was in the right place but all I could see was this image of pulling the pin from a grenade. So I exploded. All over the page.

When I perform the poem, I literally feel like I am loading a canon with all of my frustrations about being a woman and firing it into the audience. No matter where I perform it, whether it is in a women's prison or a high school, I have women and girls that come up to me afterward and say, "Wow. That is just how I feel. Thank you." To me, that is the astounding power of performance poetry. In about three minutes, you can share a moment with fellow humans more visceral than many art forms could ever create.

The first time I performed Girl: Exploded on a national stage was the first ever Women of the World Poetry Slam held in 2008. The event was highly controversial. In fact, there were many female slam poets that refused to go the first year because they felt like it was saying female poets needed some kind of "Special Olympics."

Since 2004, Poetry Slam Inc. has hosted the Individual World Poetry Slam and at that point no woman had won the title though several had been in finals. Many women in the slam community felt like there needed to be a level playing field.

Like any good group of artists, the poetry slam community is a microcosm of society. From hockey players in sequin dresses to ex-marine jocks to tattooed, pink haired mothers of five. The undercurrent of every major city is represented.

We have semi-annual meetings and online forums chock full of discussions about things like: Is it okay to boo a racist poem? What makes a poem racist? Are men unfairly favored by judges because of their deep voices or aggressive style? Are women exploiting their experience with rape just to get a good score? The Slam community takes equal-opportunity art very seriously so the decision to host an all woman event was not made quickly. After months of debate, they decided to at least give it a try.

That first year, I competed in a bout with poets who left me awe-struck. There were poets such as Andrea Gibson, who went on to win that year, and Gypsee Yo, an Albanian-American who makes me shiver every time she speaks. The event became much more about women telling our stories and developing our craft and less about scores.

We developed friendships and working relationships that could not be found elsewhere. Since then, I have been seriously pursuing performance poetry. The Women of the World poetry slam has become a very successful event and Amy Everhart became the first woman to win the Individual World Poetry Slam.

Do we still need women only slams? Recently, a fellow woman poet noted that when she was moving and boxing up the stacks of poetry chapbooks she had from her friends, there were some that didn't have their names on the covers. Some didn't provide contact info; one didn't have the poet's name in the entire book. These books were all written by women.

The number one thing we address in women's performance workshops is: DO NOT APOLOGIZE FOR YOUR PRESENCE.

I think women still have such a hard time giving themselves permission to create art, be vulnerable or be, heaven forbid, ugly on stage. So often women artists are portrayed as sex symbols and we often think that the only way we can express ourselves is if we can stay sexy while doing it. Slam poetry offers us a platform to be celebrated for our grit, our intelligence, our strength. It will always be a reflection of our society, absurd and beautiful, but when women poets come together in a safe space, we give each other permission to do whatever our creative hearts need to do. Even if we just need to explode.

Watch "Girl Exploded" by Lauren Zuniga

September 21, 2010

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Lauren Zuniga lives at the Clementine Women Artist Collective in Oklahoma City with her two kids. Her first poetry book, The Nickel Tour (Penmanship Books, NYC) is available at www.laurenzuniga.com.


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