Houston-area performance poets will compete in the ultimate creative showdown at Space City Poetry Slam Series, organized by Writers in the Schools, on Sunday, April 2 at Discovery Green. From the participating wordsmiths, ranging between 13 and 19 years old, the top 6 poets will get a spot on the Meta-Four Houston team and compete this summer in the Super Bowl of slams: the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in San Francisco.
Four seasoned performance poets who made it to Brave New Voices last year, Donald V. (17), Rukmini K. (16), Jadon E. (17) and Jackson N. (17), share that a poetry slam is only half writing and expression. The other half is community.
“Even though we’re competing, there’s this sense of solidarity,” shares Rukmini. These four poets, high school students from all over Houston, say there’s no way they’d be friends if it weren’t for slam poetry. And a big part of feeling like family comes from what their poems are about. Rukmini, who described herself as shy before becoming a performance poet, writes mostly about things that make her mad.
“One of the first poems I wrote is my period poem,” Rukmini remembers. “It made me angry that people period shame—(I thought) this is ridiculous. If we can normalize the idea of women having periods, it can make things easier to say. It shouldn’t be shameful or secretive, since half the population of the world has this issue.”
Like Rukmini, Jadon also sees himself as a shy person naturally. “And then I’m like a performing artist at the same time,” he laughs. Jadon tends to write about things he feels everyday, like social awkwardness, crushes and stigmas about being black.
“I don’t write it for it to be good writing,” Jadon says. “I write it because it’s on my mind and it needs to come out. No matter how you approach it, you’re making it more beautiful. The idea is not to write good poetry, but to write poetry.”
All four poets say authenticity—real feelings about real things—are essential to composing poetry that is going to resonate with diverse audiences. For Donald, that means first-hand experiences.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, the Eastside of Houston is like this,’” Donald explains. “It’s another thing to be in Eastside Houston and see it for yourself. [It’s like] looking for your sock, that’s how you got to look for inspiration, vigilant on your quest.”
For others, finding the right thing to say is about self-reflection and then learning how to share that very personal thing with strangers in a compelling performance.
“I wrote about being queer for the first time last year,” Jackson says, “and that was a really cathartic experience…If you didn’t almost cry, you probably didn’t do it right.”
Jackson, who says he’s been writing his whole life, explains that there’s a key difference for him between slam poetry and other kinds of writing—something spoken out loud in the moment, rather than a poem that is just going to sit on a page.
“Poems are very calculative when they’re just written—word choice and structure, small minute details that you want people to notice,” Jackson says. “You don’t get that option with slam poetry. The language that you use, while perhaps beautiful or emotionally enticing, it has to be accessible to all of your audiences, people of different backgrounds. That’s why slam poetry is so amazing—it breaks that wall between elite and the public.”