Poets of OSLAM, the College’s slam poetry team, convened for their biggest performance of the semester, the Grand Slam, in Dye Lecture Hall Saturday night. The Slam, which featured performances from ten student poets, was not only a moment to showcase these poets’ work to the wider student community — it was also a competition. The poets were vying for a spot on Oberlin’s College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational team, which will travel to Temple University in Philadelphia this April to compete at the national level.
This year’s CUPSI team will be formed by College sophomore Zite Ezeh, College junior Sarah Ridley, and OSLAM co-presidents and College juniors Hanne Williams-Baron and Deborah Johnson. College first-year Jalen Woods, who took fifth place, will be an alternate.
Before the first performance, the co-presidents took a moment to ground the audience in the history of slam and spoken word, as well as in the history of OSLAM itself, which is five years old this year.
“Spoken word is a Black art form,” Johnson said. “It was born from the Black Arts movement and spearheaded by leaders like Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks. So for any of us who aren’t Black, this is not for us, or by us.”
“We are thankful guests in this space and in this history,” Williams-Baron added.
The team also worked with a variety of people and groups on campus to make the space more accessible to all audience members, including the Office of Disability Resources and the Peer Support Center, and encouraged audience members to engage with the space in the ways that fit them best. There was a specifically-reserved quiet row in the back of the auditorium, the performances were amplified, and participants were encouraged to stand, move, or take a break from the space if they needed to.
The poetry featured throughout the evening covered a wide range of topics, including the poets’ experiences with gender, empowerment, beauty, exoticism, mental illness, and violence. The poems were each scored on a scale of one to ten by five judges drawn from the audience. According to Williams-Baron, the judges were “looking for things like craft, memorization, wordplay, originality, and urgency.”
Ridley, who placed second, noted that particular lines and images from their poetry have apparently stuck with the audience members in attendance at Saturday night’s sold-out show.
“My first poem was about being beautiful and I think of it as a mantra for myself — telling myself things that I don’t necessarily believe but want to convince myself of,” Ridley wrote in an email to the Review. “I have a section of it where I repeat ‘I like [blank]’ for different aspects of my body that wouldn’t normally be considered beautiful or that I wouldn’t like about myself most of the time. People have referred to it as the poem in which I ‘compare my vagina to a mango.’”
Williams-Baron, who placed third, decided to push herself to intentionally take a different tone in the poetry that she brought to the Grand Slam this year. She said that many poets on the team also moved away from common perceptions of slam poetry, toward creating work that resonated more deeply with them.
“Something that I was pushing myself to do this year is to not feel so much pressure to be empowering or uplifting, which I have definitely felt in the past,” she said. “I told a story this year that was really hard to share, but I also was trying to be really honest. That’s how I did my poems this year. I tried to be as honest as possible, and tried to steer away from any weird inspiration porn stuff that I think slam poets are often held up to. I don’t think that anybody [on the team] was writing poems that were like, ‘this is what a slam poem sounds like,’ and ‘this is what an audience will like.’ We weren’t catering to that. I think everybody’s poems were really true, and earnest, and beautiful.”
For many audience members, celebrating the craft and technique in each poem was an integral part of their experience of the night.
“I think Jalen [Woods]’ first poem was one of my favorites, because that person has such an understanding of sound,” said College first-year Jules Crewe-Kluge, who attended the slam. “I’m always interested in the mechanisms of slam poetry, and sound is obviously a huge part of that.”
The audience was also integrally involved in the performance, as a poetry slam involves a great deal of call-and-response.
“Let’s talk about energy,” Johnson said at the beginning of the show while introducing the audience to this style of active participation. “If you have energy to give, please give it. You can clap. You can clap in American Sign Language. You can snap. You can nod, you can make noise, you can come to the front if you want to.”
College first-year Zimmy Chu, an audience member, spoke about how this energy — encouraged by Johnson at the start of the performance and stoked by emcee and College senior Andre Jamal — influenced their enjoyment of the performances.
“I think a lot of times that art and poetry, when it isn’t performed — and even sometimes when it is performed — is just kind of for the audience, but the audience doesn’t have a stake in it,” Chu said. “That’s what I love about performance poetry — the community created when you’re seeing someone who’s being so vulnerable, and you can feel what they’re feeling, and you can show them how you feel.”
To hone this focus on craft and performance, this year OSLAM has had only a competitive team, while in the past they have also had a club that was open to all poets.
“We wanted a smaller community where we all felt that we all really trusted each other,” Williams-Baron said. “We’ve kind of stepped away from doing the club, but I hope we can bring it back in the future, because I think it was valuable in certain ways.”
This shift in focus is not the only change that has taken place in OSLAM under Johnson and Williams-Baron’s leadership. The team has taken on a variety of new projects, including publishing a printed chapbook. Furthermore, this Grand Slam was the first time in OSLAM history that all poets were required to have their poems memorized and that tickets were sold. Proceeds from the ticket and chapbook sales will go toward sending poets to CUPSI. Looking forward to the spring, the co-presidents have even more plans for the team.
“I think we are going to try to do some recording next semester, which would be really cool,” Williams-Baron said. “We definitely have brought some incredible poets this semester … and we’re thinking about who we’re booking for the spring. That’s really exciting. We might do another Love Slam. Who knows? But I think we are trying to really focus in on our writing, and performance, and our community, and not worry too much about having lots of flashy events.”
Looking forward to future OSLAM events and performances, Williams-Baron encouraged audience members to be critical of their beliefs and expectations in these spaces, and the impact they may have.
“I think sometimes an audience can objectify poets, in that they just want to be inspired, or they want to feel some kind of superficial anger at the system and not really interrogate their own position,” she said. “I think that’s something we need to push back against. I think it’s really, really important — if somebody’s calling some shit out onstage, don’t assume that it’s not about you just because you’re at the slam.”