On Nov. 6, a group of 30 or 40 students and faculty gathered at the Cat in the Cream to hear Oberlin’s finest do some poetic slamming at “Inner Peace Meets Outer Peace,” an event hosted by Active Minds at Oberlin and the Oberlin Peace Activists League. I sat next to College junior Aviva Maslow at a table in the Cat, and I think it is fair to consider her representative of the average audience member, if slightly more bright-eyed. Like other students in this small crowd, Maslow said she was there to support a friend, College junior and Review Arts Editor Abby Hawkins, who performed third. She declined further questions, saying, “This is about Abby, not me.” Fair enough.
College senior and campus slam poetry aficionado Ryan Magiera kicked off the night’s student performances, pushing audience members to the edges of their seats with a powerful poem about perfection through the lens of playing basketball. Hawkins’s three poems were very good, and her third brought the house down — that being a lot of appreciative snapping and “mm hmms!” from enthusiastic audience members. But her second poem, which was an ode to her childhood and the siblings she never had, was so colorful, sincere and beautifully read that by the end she had effectively breathed the absent brother and sister into real, heart-pumping existence.
Hawkins was not alone in her inventive words and nimble delivery. College sophomore Zoe Gould read a poem-story about youth and God and her mother, whom she depicted (at one moment) as “spitting guilt through the cracks in her lips.” Almost all of the poets shared a common theme: the identity crisis that so relentlessly hounds adolescents as they struggle to figure out just who they are. Gould’s character remembered asking “What can I do and who can I be?” Hawkins talked about “cookie-cutter girls” who “are not free” and “cannot dream.”
College junior Taylor Johnson, whom I have decided to dub “The Golden Persona” — though I’m sure she has many infinitely better nicknames — then stepped on stage after some negotiation and held court with a few minutes of unadulterated complaint and on-the-spot banter before she even read a line. Nobody seemed to mind. Her poetry, too, was occupied with being young and being young and in love. She cooed, “You are my favorite kind of too much,” then proceeded to rhapsodize blinding lines of verse which ran out the clock on their allotted meter when the imaginary beat dropped, but danced insistently along without breaking tempo.
The special guest of the evening was spoken-word artist Zain Shamoon, hailing from Michigan State University, who went on last and specialized in socio-political commentary wrapped in hip-hop clothing. In spite of some extraordinary beat-boxing skills, Mr. Shamoon seemed to be missing something. He mentioned somewhere along the line that slam poetry was something he did for himself — you know, to exorcise the monster. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t guarantee your audience will share the enthusiasm. Every one of the Oberlin poets blew me away because of their elegant commitment to meaning and aesthetics. I wish Mr. Shamoon would spend more time doing art for art’s sake and a little less time preaching social change to the Oberlin choir.