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Breathing in stanzas: The Slam poetry of Women of Colour

Georgia Lin discusses slam poetry, and its meaning for Women of Colour.

Poetry as a digital experience is how I first came to know verse. I pored through the endless bank of videos on Button Poetry’s Youtube channel, each three-minute piece after another. Listening to teenagers recite slam poetry with impassioned expressions and colourful gestures while articulating profound thoughts on race, immigration, and womanhood made me want to immerse myself in their world. The words of young slam poets such as Sarah Kay, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, and Elizabeth Acevedo resonated with me as they tenderly spoke of their lives. The topics in their poetry ranged from first loves to depression disorder, friendship to the power of names; these poets had me snapping my fingers to myself when I heard their words for the first time.

Sarah Kay’s poem, The Type, starts as follows: “If you grow up the type of woman men want to look at / You can let them look at you. / But do not mistake eyes for hands or windows or mirrors / Let them see what a woman looks like. / They may have not ever seen one before.”

Take a breath. She continues, “If you grow up the type of woman men want to touch / You can let them touch you. / Sometimes, it is not you they are reaching for. / Sometimes it is a bottle, a door, a sandwich, a Pulitzer — another woman. / But their hands found you first. / Do not mistake yourself for a guardian or a muse or a promise or a victim or a snack / You are a woman — skin and bones, veins and nerves, hair and sweat / You are not made out of metaphors, not apologies, not excuses.”

I would come back to Kay’s words, uttered with softness and a gentle melancholy, after breakups and frustrations and being filled with the desire to be more than I was or could be. Poetry, even when listened to in the darkness of my room with only my shadow reflected against the walls by the light of my laptop, was always a solace. Though I never succeeded as an amateur slam poet, the nuances possible in poetry — especially poetry written, performed, and given as a gift by other women of colour — have left a lasting impact on how I view the literary world.

I am constantly in awe of women of colour who write raw, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful poems about their lived experiences; about occupying spaces that do not fit us, nor were ever built for us. The desire for whiteness, for its ease and appeasement, is a sentiment experienced by people of colour at some point in our lives and one I continue to wrestle with as an immigrant woman of colour, especially since I arrived in Oxford. Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s poem titled “Yosra Strings Off My Mustache” paints this internal struggle:

“We have done all the worrying for them / Our entire lives / Because our mothers have taught us to bring cleaning supplies / Because we have learned to forgive every space we enter / Because Yosra keeps a roll of string in her purse with her at all times.”

Take a breath. We keep going: “For emergencies / And the emergency this time is I’m about to see a white boy / The emergency is I want him to like me / And my mustache looks like the subtitles for a foreign movie starring an actress I’ll never look like / Or a stock ticker for money I’ll never have. / Maybe one day I can be chill / Like the white girls / The ones who don’t shave for political reasons.”

The emotional labour held in the bodies of women of colour is illuminated through poetry, allowing us to navigate colonial spaces and attitudes outside of our control. By situating poetry as an intersectional act, it is another avenue for women of colour to dive into ourselves through new mediums. Slam poetry in particular is a powerful means of advocacy and self-protection. The autonomy to decide emphasis, pauses, and silences in performance are exemplified by Afro-Latina poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s works, such as her poem “Unforgettable”, co-written and co-performed by Pages Matam and G. Yamazawa:

“I always wanted a name that set the bar high /That tumbled out of mouths / Somersaulted into a room and split the air / A name like Xochi, or Anacaona / But although I must have punched inside the placenta / My parents decided on something placid / Elizabeth.”

Take a breath. In unison, “A name for princesses, pampered women, and perfume. / A name full of grace / A name easily washed down with milk / […] / I wanted a name of Dominican hills rising, and campesinos uprising / Instead of ‘Long live the Queen’ / But shortened my name to Liz / so colonizers had less to hold onto.”

Poetry offers opportunities for collective breaths and sighs, something often lost in our high-speed academic environments. It is through the likes of Button Poetry and other accessible digital platforms that these emerging poets have come to publish their anthologies and full-fledged novels, such as Kay’s 2014 poetry collection No Matter the Wreckage, Acevedo’s successful novels With the Fire on High (2019), The Poet X (2020) and Clap When You Land (2020), and Lozada-Oliva’s upcoming novel-in-verse Dreaming of You (2021). I do not associate poetry with constraints nor its traditional white canon; for me, poetry is a wholly liberating experience.

I am sure I will write a poem about my time at Oxford, whether it be about how removed I feel from the East Asian diaspora whenever I enter any higher education space; on feeling immense gratitude for being in this city and simultaneous discomfort when reckoning with its histories; for wanting to be taught and interact with more faculty of colour; or simply on wanting the academy to be better and knowing that it is an inherently damaged space. In whatever space lies between, I take comfort in knowing that poetry in all its messy, emotional forms waits for me somewhere.

Recommended authors & works:

Peluda (2017) – Melissa Lozada-Oliva

Life of the Party (2019) – Olivia Gatwood

All Our Wild Wonder (2018) – Sarah Kay, illustrated by Sophia Janowitz

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011) – Warsan Shire

Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) – Claudia Rankine

salt. (2013) – nayyirah waheed

[1] Button Poetry, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/c/ButtonPoetry

[2] Sarah Kay, “The Type,” Button Poetry (Youtube), 30 January 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYAiYMlOCI4

[3] Ibid.

[4] Melissa Lozada-Oliva, “Yosra Strings Off My Mustache,” Button Poetry (Youtube), 24 August 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcOiiJEqoKw

[5] Ibid.

[6] Pages Matam, Elizabeth Acevedo & G. Yamazawa, “Unforgettable,” Button Poetry (Youtube), 5 September 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xvah3E1fP20&t=62s

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sarah Kay, No Matter the Wreckage, (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014); Elizabeth Acevedo, With the Fire on High, (Quill Tree Books, 2019); Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X (Harper Collins, 2020); Elizabeth Acevedo, Clap When You Land (Quill Tree Books, 2020); Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Dreaming of You: A Novel in Verse (Astra House, 2021)

Illustration by Mia Clement.

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