April 13, 2013 in Mlekoday
The Trigger, the Shock, and the Human in the College Slam Poem
By Michael Mlekoday
CUPSI (the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, or college nationals) has come a long way since I first attended in 2007. The night of Finals, before the bout started, the host team and organizers got onstage to thank us all, celebrate the success of the tournament, and to say “I love you guys. No homo.” No sarcasm.
Some people laughed. Some didn’t even notice. The women sitting in front of me, from SUNY – New Paltz, were the only people I noticed who were actively upset about what had just been said. Ultimately, there were conversations and conflicts, and, if my memory is working right, apologies. But the initial response was mostly just indifference.
Just six years later, the very idea of somebody saying something like that on Finals Stage is basically absurd. We are now a community that embraces poems about queerness, trans* experiences, and a whole host of other discourses that were either silenced or ignored in the CUPSI I grew up in. Moreover, we’ve got incredible advocates like Caroline Harvey, who organized the Big Homies support system this year, Mike Rosen, who always insists on safety and inclusion in our community, and Danez Smith, who is a fireball of compassion and righteousness.
This year saw the biggest CUPSI yet, with teams from elite liberal arts colleges, research I universities, and community colleges alike. It was, more or less, a celebration of poetry, community, diversity, and inclusion.
This is all to say that we are doing good work. Bravo, poets. For real.
That said, there’s a lot we as a community need to work on. This essay is about the art itself.
(Preface: I don’t mean to attack any poem, poet, team, or coach, and all the criticism I offer is in the name of love. I love this community, I love this art form, and I love CUPSI. I just mean to share some of the things I’ve been thinking about since the tournament this year.)
I have never experienced sexual assault or rape, I benefit from white privilege on an hourly basis, and, as I’m always read as a man, I get loads of privilege from that, too—and even I was hurt, offended, and sometimes traumatized by more than a little of the work I saw at CUPSI this year. The problem is not one of intentions, or of politics, or of ethics; the problem is a problem of craft.
Having been slamming and coaching at regional and national tournaments for nearly a decade, I have never before seen so many poems that attempt nothing but the construction and representation of an oppressor or a villain or “the enemy.” Some of these poems were attempting satire, to varying degrees of success, but some of them seemed to tell a mean and tragic story simply for the sake of telling a mean and tragic story. These poems offered no critique, no humanization, and no redemption: although I’m sure the poets had the best of intentions for these poems (and, having spoken to some of them, they certainly did), the end results were a poetic analog to torture porn.
Artistically speaking, it’s not enough to simply list racist stereotypes that we’ve all heard, or to speak cruelly from the perspective of a rapist, or to render a portrait of the brutality some oppressor has doled out. Without critiquing, or analyzing, or humanizing the problematic character the poem is portraying, or offering redemption and hope in a narrative of violence and despair, the thing that is impacting the emotions of the audience is not actually your art at all, simply the atrocity the poem is based on.
I was talking to one of my former slam students about the tournament this year, and he summed it up nicely (and then I forgot what exactly he said, so I’ll paraphrase): “A school shooting is sad. We already know that. A poem needs to move beyond that.” A poem isn’t actually contributing anything to the political-cultural landscape, or to our own imaginations, if it doesn’t find a way to push beyond the obviousness of the atrocity.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
I suspect that a lot of the poets / poems we saw this year were partly influenced by Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead.” It’s a classic slam poem, one that has contributed more to our genre than I can say. And, indeed, it’s a poem that takes on the voice of an oppressor. But the thing that makes this poem so goddamn wonderfully successful as a work of art is not the shock of a black woman speaking as a white supremacist, it’s not the brutality the skinhead dishes out and how sociopathic he is—it’s the ways in which the poem artfully humanizes him. The poem analyzes the guy’s socio-economic context and suggests that his racism stems, at least partially, from his being out of a job. It doesn’t make me empathize with a white supremacist, exactly, but it does humanize him in a risky and urgent way. Moreover, the poem utilizes incredible imagery (“I sit in my dim matchbox,” “those TV flashes licking my face clean,” etc.) to construct this character and his situation. Everything about the craft of this poem is brilliant, and it’s those specific craft devices that make it a work of art rather than three minutes that require a trigger warning in the beginning.
Another influential poem in a similar vein is Sierra DeMulder’s “Mrs. Dahmer.” The poem is super dark, and its representations of the serial killer’s actions are indeed shocking and brutal. But once again, it’s the poem’s move towards humanization, towards redemption, which make it a powerful and iconic work of art. DeMulder meditates on the everyday violences (domestic disputes, family bonds dissipating) that might produce larger violences, and attempts to humanize both the serial killer and his mother. Even with all of its shocking and brutal imagery, the poem is ultimately a touching and beautiful representation of motherhood and unconditional love. Additionally, I think one of the poem’s main arguments is actually the one I’m trying, less eloquently, to make: “No one wants to hear how you were a wonderful child,” Sierra writes, “They only want to watch your car crash of a life on repeat.” Too often at CUPSI this year, I felt that we were all too obsessed with the car crash to remember the actual, concrete, beautiful moments of humanity that unite us all.
I know that it’s ridiculous to tell everybody to write as dope of stuff as Patricia Smith and Sierra DeMulder, who will both go down in history as voices of their generations. We’re college students, we’re all new to this, and we all can only hope to glimpse the kind of magic that those two stars bring. So let’s look at one more example, one of my favorite CUPSI poems, from way back in 2007.
The UC-Berkeley team from 2007—Isaac Miller, Miguel Peraza, Dinna Omar, and Abe Becker—performed a 4-person group piece on semi-finals and finals (yeah, the rules were different back then) that has stuck with me to this day, and it’s exactly the kind of poem that I was hoping to show my first-time slam students at the tournament this year. The poem, which is basically about gang violence, is called “Never Been in a Gang,” and it analyzes the ways in which race and socio-economics are social constructs which privilege some and condemn others. There are two people of color and two white folks in the poem, and each of them acknowledges the different privileges they enjoy as students at an elite university. They tell personal stories from their lives about gang violence, and acknowledge that it’s a kind of suffering they’ve never experienced. Finally, although the atrocity they’re writing about is overwhelming, they allow for hope and redemption in the beautiful, imagistic climax of the poem. It’s the keen political analysis, the acknowledgment of privilege, the inclusion of the personal, and the moment of hope and uplift that make this a dope poem. They could’ve written a poem that laments racism and gun violence, that twists our hearts with images and stories of kids having their lives ripped away by senseless violence. And it could’ve scored very well. But instead, they pushed beyond the obvious, and I’ll be showing the poem to my students for the rest of my life.
It’s this kind of sweeping statement that gets me in trouble, but, hey: I cannot name a single classic slam poem, a single piece that will be remembered as a masterful and transformative work of art, that doesn’t in some way move beyond the atrocity.
I want to repeat: this is not meant to be an attack on anybody. CUPSI is a space for college students to try something new, to experiment with poetry and performance, to get their feet wet. None of us are experts at this. But I do think we—poets, coaches, mentors, audience members—can benefit immensely by thinking critically about what exactly our poems are doing, why they’re doing it, and how they can do it better. Not only will this reduce the amount of traumatic triggers we experience at CUPSI, but it will also help us make better poems.