Big O' Poetry Slam
"The Varsity Sport of the Soul."
- Slam Article -
Reprinted with Permission.
Poetry slam as a multicultural program
by Robb Ryan Q. Thibault
On a Wednesday night you walk into the college union pub or coffee house and a young woman, perhaps a business major, steps confidently up to the microphone and from memory performs a poem about the immorality of sweatshops and child labor. She leaves the stage to a thunderous burst of approval from a standing-room-only audience. The emcee asks the judges to raise their score; "7.1" is accompanied with loud boos and hisses, "9.8" whips the audience into a frenzy, and after the last three scores are announced, the emcee calls the next poet to the stage. Another student nervously reads from a yellow legal pad a poem about the effect of extraterrestrials on human religions. Later an older gentleman approaches the stage and declares he is a plumber from the college's physical plant and will read a poem about losing his mind to age. At some point during the night you may begin to see the poetry slam as a dynamic program bringing together people from contrasting backgrounds to share a couple hours of intimacy, laughter, rage, and empathy.
Results of a study looking at educational outcomes of student experiences with diverse peers in a collegiate environment "not only support the curricular initiatives that introduce diversity into college courses, but also suggest that more attention should be given to the types of experiences students have with diverse peers inside and outside the classroom" (Gurin et al., 2002, p. 362). Poetry slams provide an opportunity to learn from one another in an informal setting outside the classroom. The slam's simple notion of being open to everyone and its celebration of free expression are the driving forces of this program. Students who are not involved in other cocurricular activities may find the slam to be the campus niche that connects them to the college. For many students, the very nature of convening with other campus community members can be life affirming.
According to the Digest of Education Statistics (1998), during the next decade the number of ethnic minority teachers will dissipate to 5 percent, while America's school enrollment for ethnic minority students will rise to 41 percent (in Morrell and Duncan-Andrade, 2002). Morrell and Duncan-Andrade (2002) suggest, as classes become increasingly diverse there is a greater need to find meaningful ways to connect students across the array of differences.
Poetry slam has been used in high school English classrooms as a form of violence prevention, discussion of differences, and peaceful management of conflict.
The poetry slam diversifies diversity, it goes beyond skin color or gender, and it brings people together who ordinarily might not share the same space. Slam is open to all persons regardless of profession, education level, values, beliefs, age, sexuality, and ethnicity. It is the people's poetry with an element of mock competition tossed in to create drama. It is poetry that is accessible to everyone, and you do not need to be a literature major to understand it.
The poetry slam was started in Chicago on July 20, 1986 by a no-nonsense construction worker named Marc Kelley Smith as a response to traditional poetry readings, which were usually stuffy affairs held in libraries, coffee houses, classrooms, and/or cramped between a bookstore's cluttered aisles. Smith was taken aback by the lack of passion, and the excess of pomposity, at these poetry readings, which seemed to portray poetry as something only the learned or published could appreciate. He would turn instead to the jazz nightclubs and saloons of Chicago to create vaudeville-like poetry events: part jazz, part theater, part anything-goes where a poet had to effectively communicate with an audience that could be loud, intoxicated, and/or indifferent. On a whim one evening Smith selected a handful of judges to score the poems and marveled at the effect. The crowd, even the bar flies, shut up to listen and cheer for their favorite poets and boo the ones they didn't like (personal communication, September 17, 2003). In 1986, a Chicago Sun Times journalist asked Smith why he called it a slam. "Well, I thought everybody would think 'a slam to hell with poetry,' but I started thinking about a grand slam in baseball and even in bridge," Smith said. "And, well, I had to get the flier out, so that's the name I went with." (in Voedisch, 1986, p. 3).
The significance of the poetry slam to college union professionals is as an opportunity for powerful community building and as a dynamic arts and multicultural program. Campus activities professionals are often effective at responding to current events and trends by developing programs to educate and entertain. In the last decade poetry has become an industry: publishing houses are printing and selling more poetry, and there is an increase of poetry readings and festivals across the globe (National Public Radio, 1999). Technology has offered poets the tools to electronically self-publish. It's featured on television commercials and in shows such as HBO's "Def Poetry Jam," which earlier this year earned a Tony Award for its rendition on Broadway. Poetry has been revived, and its offspring, the slam, offers college union professionals a fresh platform for innovative multicultural programming.
Given that college unions originated as the venue to support 19th-century debate societies, the poetry slam is a contemporary link to this tradition, a tradition for public expression and the exchange of ideas. A.M.M. Stedman in 1887 wrote: "The union is a kind of large literary club" (in Butts, 1971), and so in the fall of 2001 it was time to open this club to the spoken word of poetry slam. The Big O' Poetry Slam (BOPS), housed in the Charles W. Hunt College Union at the State University of New York–Oneonta, drew an audience averaging 85 persons during six slams in its first year, 2001–02. In the second year the average attendance rose 47 percent to 125 persons per program. While these are impressive numbers on a campus of 5,600 students, "most college and university student affairs programs promote cultural awareness and acceptance, but few go beyond the initial presentation stages to explore the perceptions or efficacy of the programs" (McClellan, Cogdal, Lease, & Londono-McConnell, 1996). BOPS was well budgeted, produced good attendance numbers, and received much praise in the local college media, but it needed more than anecdotal information to discern the effectiveness of its success as a multicultural program.
In January 2003 the first survey was conducted prior to the evening's poetry slam to develop a snapshot of the audience members and their thoughts and feelings on several issues. Seventy-three of the 93 persons in attendance responded. As to diversity, the survey revealed an audience that was 70 percent female, whereas the college reports overall female enrollment at 60 percent (State University of New York–Oneonta, 2003). Audience members were distributed across the academic classes (17 percent first-year students; 23 percent sophomores; 30 percent juniors; 30 percent seniors). Additionally, the audience was racially diverse; 41 percent identified themselves as non-Caucasian, whereas only 9 percent of the student body as a whole identifies themselves as non-Caucasian (State University of New York–Oneonta, 2003).
Fully in accord with the diversity of BOPS, 95 percent agreed with the statement "I embrace the diversity of the Big O' Poetry Slam"; 93 percent agreed with "I think everyone's voice is welcomed at the Big O' Poetry Slam"; 91 percent agreed with "There is respect for differences of gender and sexuality at the Big O' Poetry Slam"; and 89 percent agreed with "There is respect for ethnic and cultural differences at the Big O' Poetry Slam" (7 percent were unsure). There were no significant differences of agreement between Caucasians and non-Caucasians on these statements with only one exception to the statement "Everyone's voice is welcomed." Caucasians reported agreement at 91 percent and non-Caucasians agreed slightly higher at 97 percent. Comparatively along gender there was a higher level of agreement among women (96 percent) on the statement "Everyone's voice is welcome" to men (86 percent), and a higher level of agreement among men (95 percent) on the statement "There is respect for differences of gender and sexuality" to (88 percent) women. Based on this preliminary survey, poetry slam shows promise as an inclusive multicultural program.
Nejman (2002) has proposed "12 steps for multicultural programming success in a predominantly white environment." In this section Nejman's 12 steps will serve to show how poetry slam exhibits the characteristics of a successful multicultural program.
Step out of your comfort zone. Poetry slam offers students and the campus community an opportunity to do this. In fact there is an opportunity for the listeners and audience members to step into their "discomfort zones" and have their beliefs and perceptions challenged through the sometimes provocative poetry and spoken word. The BOPS survey shows respondents overall were split evenly with one-third agreeing, one-third disagreeing, and one-third unsure when asked if they "would feel comfortable reading a poem" in the slam and open mic. When the question of comfort is broken down by gender, males report a higher level of agreement (67 percent) about reading at an open mic than women (18 percent). Comfort levels for reading a poem in the competitive slam dropped for both men and women, although men still report a greater level of agreement (50 percent) to women (16 percent). It is interesting to note during the last two years that women earned seven of the 10 positions in open competition on the college's poetry slam team. Comfort does not necessarily predict involvement. There were also differences in agreement for comfort levels between Caucasian and non-Caucasians. For reading a poem in the open mic, non-Caucasians identified a greater level of comfort (41 percent) than Caucasians (26 percent); for reading a poem in the slam, non-Caucasians expressed greater comfort (57 percent) than Caucasians (35 percent).
Multicultural programming will benefit the entire campus, not just the targeted groups. What is unique about the slam is that it does not target any group, yet many administrators have said it has the greatest diversity of participants of any program on campus. BOPS, for example, promotes the slam competition as being open to all students and college employees and not targeted to any cultural group. It acknowledges the value of the town community by inviting everyone (including the public) to read during the open mic. As a result of this program, poets from the BOPS have been invited to perform at a variety of college events (Sept. 11 remembrances, Take Back the Night programs, special poetry slams for the college admissions office spend-the-night programs, and antihate antiviolence programs at the Center for Multicultural Experience).
Be aware of the three stages of diversity and how they apply to multicultural programming; Build alliances between the program board and other student groups. Nejman refers to Patricia Cross's (1991) "Three Stages of Institutional Development": "Single dominant culture," "A number of separate cultures coexisting," "The separate cultures merge into a common culture while maintaining their own identities" (in Nejman, 2002, p. 26). The poetry slam transcends the common notions (race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality) of diversity, but it does not ignore their importance. In 1994, Kathleen Manning referring to Paulo Freire's (1970, 1974) work on the multicultural theory of liberation wrote: "All people can have knowledge of and understand the systems that oppress them … and through such awareness people can become more fully human" (p. 177). Much of the poetry expressed currently in slams targets social, economic, and political inequalities and perceived injustices. The freedom of the slam permits honest, open dialogue and a sense of caring between the poet and the listener, which "seeks to engage both the teacher(s) and student(s) as fully participating actors in the educational experience … [And] in an inclusive and liberating environment where the complex array of differences strengthens the learning experience" (Manning, 1994, p. 178). BOPS is produced by the Slam Council and has been made up of students representing various clubs and organizations (English Club, Art & Scope, Students of Color Coalition, Iota Phi Beta) and staff from the residence life department and the college union, and faculty members from the departments of English and history. There has been extensive alliance building to support the program from many college offices and departments. Last April the offices of alumni affairs, academic advisement, and ancillary services combined efforts to support the travel costs associated with the college's team in the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.
Program events that allow direct feedback from target groups. By their very nature, poetry slams provide immediate feedback to the poets from the range of audience reactions to the scoring of poems applied by the selected judges. Slam Council members bring their feedback on each program to regular meetings. Student Slam Council members take on the regular leadership roles of emceeing the slams and open mics.
Build bridges with faculty; Include an educational component in your program. Faculty members serve on the Slam Council and attend regular meetings and slams. They serve as coaches for the college team at regional and national slam tournaments. Faculty have sent their students to BOPS programs for class-related activities and BOPS featured poets have made class visits to support learning in the classroom. As a result, slam coordinators have seen an increase in faculty attendance at the slams. BOPS is now incorporating themes in its delivery of poetry slams; an example is last year's "Slam Against Hate and Violence," which was part of a larger antiviolence program series. Instead of awarding cash prizes to the top scoring poets, BOPS awards the high and low scoring poets with poetry books, CD's, and videos to augment the educational purpose.
Program creatively with a limited budget. BOPS alliances have assisted in securing monies for feature poets and slam tournaments. Slam Council members have increased their networking with national and regional slam poets and, in turn, help negotiate affordable fees. Slams are flexible and can be effective multicultural programs run on any budget from $50 to $2,500 per show, depending on how great the fee for performers is and the scope of the program.
Reach out to the off-campus community. BOPS remains open to the local community. The relationship has fostered other poetry and poetry slam events in the community and nearby towns.
Seek help from professionals before problems arise. There is a great degree of faculty and staff support in the audience on any given night at a BOPS event to offer support or assistance should a conflict arise. Additionally faculty members from the history and English departments are on the Slam Council to assist in the planning phases and avert conflicts before they arise.
Be patient. BOPS has seen attendance rise and create more involvement from college offices and departments as time passes. The survey has established a foundation for further assessment and the current results indicate the program is a significant and successful multicultural program. The BOPS is presently pursuing grants in conjunction with the college's research and alumni foundations to secure additional funding. Such a partnership implies the institution sees the value of the program and its affects on campus diversity.
Strive for a healthy multicultural campus climate. BOPS is recognized as contributing to the diversity goals of the student development department and campus. The program sees a great deal of support from the top down and from the bottom up.
Poetry slam is not the typical campus diversity program people might think of when it is time to coordinate programs for a cultural-themed month or annual international dinner, and yet it fulfills so much of what campuses wish to capture: bringing all populations together in a supportive environment where self-expression and individual identity can be shared safely without reservation or fear of reprisal; where the formal social lines between student and college employee are temporarily lifted. Through the organized chaos of the slam, Smith (2003) writes, the slam can create
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