A groundbreaking team of female poets shakes up the often male-dominated world of competitive poetry.
Roya Marsh clasps her hands at the base of her spine. She stands alongside Katherine George, as their heads peer over a sculpture of a young black boy at Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” at the Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. George, twenty-one, wears a long, navy-blue dress, crocheted webbing adorning her upper back. Marsh, twenty-five, wears a white T-shirt that says, “I MET GOD, SHE’S BLACK,” track pants, and neon yellow mesh sneakers. George and Marsh continue to slowly and silently traverse the exhibit in unison.
It’s early June, and the women are two of the four poets on the first ever all-female poetry slam team for both their venue, the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café, and all of New York City’s poetry slam history. The team is here for their third practice in what will be a summer-long process preparing to compete against over seventy other teams from around North America at the 25th National Poetry Slam, which would take place in August in Oakland, California. Walker’s exhibit does visually what these women do vocally and physically: share their story and demand to be heard.
Spoken word poetry has traditionally given voice to the voiceless, serving as a cathartic outlet and catalyst for both the poet and audience members. Spoken word’s mainstream appeal has grown exponentially the past three decades, from major exposure on “MTV Unplugged” in the 1994 to Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on HBO in the 2000s, to videos on Button Poetry’s YouTube channel regularly going viral this past year. The competitive form of spoken word — the poetry slam — has undoubtedly aided in this widespread growth. Marc Smith, a Chicago construction worker, developed the poetry slam competition in the early 1980s in Chicago, which ultimately led to the first National Poetry Slam tournament in 1990. Dozens and dozens of slam venues nationally and internationally hold competitions year-round to configure four- to five-person teams that compete every August at the National Poetry Slam.
“The fact that there has never been an all-woman team from the New York or New Jersey area in the last thirty years of slam is an interesting analysis of the community which chooses the slammer to represent the area, as well as the voices that touch the stage,” says team coach Mahogany L. Browne, and also the Café’s Poetry Program Director and Slam Host/Curator.
“When I came into poetry slam, I assumed that if you weren’t yelling or dominating a room, you were failing,” says Carlos Andrés Gómez, author of “Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood” and member of the 2003 Nuyo slam team. “It’s changed a lot, but I think there is still a culture of dominance, force and histrionics, in terms of the aesthetics of poetry slam. Those characteristics are incredibly limiting, and in many cases, prevent nuanced, dynamic and cathartic art to exist — much like toxic masculinity and machismo do. In short, poetry slam reflects the patriarchy and misogyny of society at large, much to its own dismay.”
“There are so many systems in place to tell women what they can and can’t say,” says Jive Poetic, who hosts the Café’s weekly Wednesday night slam, and was also a member of the 2003 team. “Oppression of voice breeds a reluctance to speak. Women are aware of this. Nobody wants to speak if they know that they are going to be ignored, punished or judged just for being true to their experience. The bottom line is that women have been and are still being silenced.”
When I was on the Nuyorican slam team in 2010, I was the only female with three males. Together, we wrote and performed a group poem about how at that particular time in the poetry slam community locally and nationwide, and throughout art and cultural history, men were too often telling women’s stories for them, making it about their own struggle. At that particular time as a competitor, I felt that in sharing my own story as a woman, I was pegged a one-dimensional poet, while I regularly watched judges reward male poets for telling their hypothetical version of my very personal experience as both a rape and eating disorder survivor, and ultimately deemed enlightened. This theft and silencing of the female voice is still a rampant and ongoing occurrence in society at large by no means unique to spoken word and poetry slam.
“Most of my favorite poets are women,” adds Browne. “However, most of the women that perform poetry — don’t necessarily slam. And those women [who] do slam, they are aware that they may be judged more harshly. In the world they are judged by what they wear, how they speak, how they parent, how many people they date — always negatively. And those type of prejudices are bound to inform a community event, like slam.”
That this year’s Nuyorican team is not only all women but also all women of color marks a moment in poetry slam history. “It feels surreal,” says Browne, who has coached six Nuyorican slam teams to the final stage in her eight consecutive years with the venue. “I never thought I would be here to see it.”
“I think when you have a marginalized voice collaborate creatively, it is a powerful thing,” Browne continues. “It means New York City, dubbed as the melting pot, or the rotten apple, remembers its mother. There is a poem there somewhere. I don’t know how to write it yet. But in a world where women are usually preyed upon and silenced — for an all women of color team to represent this city. It means — why yes of course. Why did it take so long?”
“I think us as a team — us as women, and us as colored women in New York City — are definitely making a larger statement,” says Marsh. “We are sharing our voices, our words, our thoughts in a genre I feel that’s definitely male-dominated to begin with. But I’ll say personally, my father never told me a story. My mother always told me stories. My grandmother always told me stories. And that’s where I got my storytelling from.”
“Many of the Café’s most celebrated alumni are women of color – Ntozake Shange, Dael Orlandersmith, Tony winner Sarah Jones, Rosie Perez and Rosario Dawson among them,” says Daniel Gallant, Executive Director of the Nuyorican Poets Café. “More than half of our fans and a significant portion of our artist base are women of color, as are many of NYC’s top slam poets. So the demographics of this year’s slam team resonate strongly with the Cafe’s identity.”
“Poets have to rise through multiple challenges and overcome multiple competitors,” Gallant continues. “And as a result, it’s really a crowd-sourced art form. And those poets who rise to the top get there [through competition] rather than their ethnicity, gender or any other specifics. And that’s one of the reasons we love slam and embrace it so much is that it is so democratic and based entirely on skill — with a bit of luck thrown in.”
While every slam venue in New York City and the country at large has a different format for determining their team for Nationals, the Nuyorican’s is particularly rigorous. Competitors must win Wednesday night’s open slam hosted by Jive Poetic, then a closed Friday night slam hosted by Browne. Friday night winners move on to one of five semi-finals, then the winners compete in the annual Grand Slam, with the winner crowned Nuyorican Grand Slam Champion. And that’s just how they pick one member of the team—the winners of three additional run-off slams comprise the remainder of the team.
George and Marsh arrive at the largest installation in Walker’s exhibit — a massive female sphinx made out of sugar that conjures endless racial and gender stereotypes. They stand: George, her left hand on her hip; Marsh, her hands still clasped behind her back, at the base of her spine. They watch. Silently. Two women with most fierce voices and words stand, and watch.
On stage, these women are anything but silent. It is instead they who captivate, they who beg watch. The night Marsh won her spot on the team, in early May, she shook in her seat each time she sat down from performing, as if she had awoken from an ancient murmur. “It’s definitely a big honor to be on the team,” says Marsh. “To be all women, and to be all women of color — it makes it much more honorable, especially in New York where things are always changing and moving fast.”
George moves further and further away from the exhibit. She stands back to linger and watch the performance that is everyone else watching the installation.
“I’m so uncomfortable,” says team member Amy León twenty-two, as she walks over to join George.
“Sit with this,” says Browne, as she too joins them both and places her hand on León’s shoulder.
Falu joins her teammates and says, “I wanna go home.” The fourth member of this year’s team, Falu, thirty-one, is also on the Café’s slam team for a record fourth time.
“So are we ready to write?” asks Browne. “Let’s go.”
The women gather on the outskirts of the exhibit on the ledge near the corner.
Browne instructs them to sit down and take out a blank page. “This is about dismissal of your safety,” she prompts. “All those things you’re already encroaching up on in your woman story. Whatever you choose to write to — let this fuel you. I want you to do more sensory work than anything right now. Close your eyes. Smell.”
Marsh, George, and Falu write on their iPhones. León writes in a notebook. Browne looks to Whitney Greenaway and says, “Just some sensory. Some things they won’t be able to relive.”
Greenaway, a member of the Café’s 2011 slam team, is co-coaching this year’s team alongside Browne and co-coach Jive Poetic. “The Nuyo’s always home,” says Greenaway. “At the end of the day it all comes back to — it’s home. It’s family. And if you become a part of the team then you’re part of the family.”
Life as a spoken word poet varies for each artist. For some, poetry is their main source of income, for others it accentuates an equally robust career. Marsh, a preschool teacher by day, balances sharing her story and passion on stage with the mission of helping empower youth. George is a full-time theater major and women studies minor at Brooklyn College, whose experience on this year’s team has “only intensified the feeling of wanting to pour [herself] completely into becoming a better artist and person.” León teaches theatre and creative writing to middle-school students in Brooklyn, regularly incorporating poetry in the curriculum; she continues to perform and is currently working on an EP. “Being surrounded by these beautifully intense and talented women who all also happen to be educators,” says León, “gave me the space to see myself as an educator as well.”
For Falu, a devoted mother whose kids have grown up surrounded and nurtured by her poetry community, poetry is a full-time gig, from performing at schools and churches to facilitating workshops. “Poetry is every single day for me,” says Falu. “I teach poetry daily. I don’t write daily, as of late, but I read work daily. ”
Falu credits Browne with cultivating such cataclysmic energy each Friday night when she hosts the slam. The entire team agrees — there is a unique pulse at the Nuyorican that allows them to feel comfortable sharing their voices, while recognizing it may not be inherently safe for everyone in the audience. “There’s a silence that exists,” says León. “There are so many people, sitting on top of each other. I have some pieces that don’t involve loud volume and the times that I performed them there I felt like I was given the space to be quiet.”
“Two more minutes,” says Browne.
George gazes pensively at the installation, her chest heavy with breath, her thumbs touching her phone, yet stagnant, her mouth stoic and closed. She takes a breath, bows her head down, and keeps writing. Being on the Nuyorican team has always been a dream for George, who came up through New York City’s youth poetry slam movement, housed by nonprofit organization Urban Word NYC. “When I joined the Urban Word team in 2012, [Falu] was the first person that I watched,” says George. “To have it go full circle and be on a team with Falu and other young women that I’ve watched and admired for a while is a blessing.”
“Sixty seconds,” says Browne. “Take your last deep breath. What do you smell in here? Look at your surroundings. How many women? How many women of color?”
Standing in the heart of Brooklyn’s hyper-gentrification, after seeing Kara Walker’s exhibit on race and gender and the history of slavery and racism in the United States, the 2014 Nuyorican Poets Café slam team seems like the most urgent configuration of voices — a most palpable thrust of necessity. Months later, after Walker’s exhibit is long gone, dismantled, and melted into reverie, after the team places twelfth at the National Poetry Slam, the first all-female of color Nuyorican Poets Café slam still yields a legacy that remains as loud as their voices.
“Being a part of NYC’s first all-female team was a blessing,” George says of their experience in Oakland. “Everyone responded so beautifully to the work. I also hadn’t realized how well we gelled until we were actually onstage. Our synchronized energy was palpable and made the experience an unforgettable one.”
“I hope that this marks a turning point for the Cafe where it can do a lot more to provide space and support for women’s voices,” says Gómez. “It’s still way too male-dominated across the board. Mo Browne has done an amazing job during her tenure to promote women writers and I hope it only expands. We need more women slamming – it is better for everything and everyone.”
“The power of women has always been a source of contention, women are pitted against each other and conditioned to believe there is no real solidarity between women, only cattiness,” says Browne. “In this day and age, there are women banding together to confront the racial injustices of Ferguson, there are women creating publishing groups and it feels like the time is now. Combined, our voices are so deafening, it feels like a change is coming.”
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Caroline Rothstein is a New York City-based writer, performer, body empowerment advocate, and educator. She hosts the YouTube series “Body Empowerment” and performs spoken word poetry at colleges and schools nationwide. Follow her on Twitter: @cerothstein.