You can hear with your eyes — proven by a phenomenon known to many as the McGurk Effect.
In the silence of the Impact Hub, an Oakland venue, three women standing on a stage are illuminated. What you are about to hear will make you see power.
“When I’m alone in public the bitch-face overtakes, the ‘don’t-fuck-with-me’ air rises.” Three poets rumble together, past the microphones and into the audience, whose calls of support bounce back to the poets. Video cameras capture the power of the words, and yet the essence stays in the room, as it touches the hearts and minds of listeners.
“I’m not lost and where I am going, there are people waiting for my arrival,” poet Raggedy Andey projects.
“I walk with possession occupied in my eyes. I’m not busty, I’m busy,” poet Queen Jasmeen proclaims.
“I’m actually a nice person so what prompts such rude and offensive behavior,” poet Jacqueline clarifies for the audience.
“Womanhood” was one of the many powerful pieces the Santa Cruz Legendary Poetry Collective brought to the 2015 National Poetry Slam (NPS) competition held from Aug. 10 to 17 . The collective began preparing before May, setting up a GoFundMe page to help get them to Oakland for this year’s Nationals. The collective, consisting of five members Queen Jasmeen, Raggedy Andey, Jaqcnasty, Gabe Kittle Cervine and Chris “L7” Cuadrado, came together as slams in Santa Cruz slowly qualified the prospective members. The collective transformed into a family gathering during rehearsals.
Friendships carries them through the weight of competition, where everyone’s story is important, and the stakes are higher than the tip of a mountain.
“Black girls learned young that we are supposed to look mean,” Queen Jasmeen pulls from the ripe language of the poem. “Womanhood” identifies the issues of having to be prepared to use “bitch-face” as a defense mechanism, shedding light on the idea that victim-blaming is something the victim must prepare for when walking outside
The 2015 NPS began with 72 teams from all over the nation. Each team competed in a “bout” which consisted of its poems being scored by random audience members. There were 36 bouts total, and four teams in each bout. Preliminary bouts consisted of four rounds. The top 20 teams made it to semi-finals. Once semi-finals ended, only four teams remained. These teams then competed in finals.
The Legendary Team, with the top score in its preliminary bouts became recognized as third in the nation. After semi-finals, and finals, The SC Legendary Slam Team is now in the top ten slam teams of the nation.
Chris “L7” Cuadrado is not caught up in the numbers of competing.
“Competing can be important, if the competition happens in a culture and context in which those participating seek to bring the best out of each other through that [battle],” Cuadrado wrote in an e-mail.
For many poets, scoring is a rush of adrenaline. But beyond that, the performance of slam poetry is the yearning to connect with the audience. Ultimately, everyone has an important story in the flow of their poetry. Some are dark, harsh and even tender, but what is unveiled in the community of NPS is the sharing, the hearing — and not just with ears, but also with an open-hearted community.
“I’m most excited about meeting other people from across the country who feel similar responsibilities to speak truth to power.” Cuadrado said, a week before competition.
And truth was spoken, as many Santa Cruz residents proclaimed on Facebook and other social media outlets, praising the Collective and the NPS for saying things on a platform that bring up race, class, gender identity and sexuality in times that often seem too chaotic to grasp.
The Santa Cruz Legendary Slam Team consists of individuals who are not afraid to speak their minds. Slam poetry explores the important messages that society is often too stubborn to examine. Slam poetry takes it to the next level, and confronts these issues in your presence. The exchange between visual performance and auditory zest combine for a shock to the nerves, a realization that is necessary in today’s world.
Poet Jacqnasty is proud of her team, and when asked if she ever gets nervous, she responded with a humble tone that’s all too familiar in her poetry.
“Self-doubt is inherent in being an artist. Poetry is vulnerable, period,” she said in an e-mail.
Jacqnasty, surrounded by a community that shares the intent of growth, relies on her team to continue her journey as a poet, and as her “best-self”.
“We didn’t walk out of the womb speaking in poems,” she jokes. “It’s a language that has to be cultivated and that requires creating community.”
Poets often face challenges not just in their ordinary life, but in the way they must think about their hardships. Over and over, dialogue is twisted, words shifted and messages spread like elixirs on the wounds of hearts and souls.
“The challenge of a poet is to think about what about your story and narrative can be told in a way that connects to people and the best way to learn to do that is to create community around your poetry, because other poets and other people influence your growth and keep you wanting to be better,” poet Cuadrado wrote.
Poetry Slam, Inc. (PSI), an official non-profit organization, observes and brings together the international coalition of poetry slams through rules established by a governing body dedicated to the art form. Originally proposed in the summer of 1996 in Portland at a “Slam Family Meeting,” international slams have erupted since 1990, the first of which occurring over the hill in San Francisco.
Although poetry has been alive and well for many years, the “slam” part of poetry is often credited to a construction worker Marc Smith for laying down a particular style of performance in the corner of a Chicago jazz club, “Get Me High.”
“Promoting the performance and creation of poetry while cultivating literary activities and spoken word events in order to build audience participation, stimulate creativity, awaken minds, foster education, inspire mentoring, encourage artistic statement and engage communities worldwide in the revelry of language,” is something PSI hopes to maintain, according to its mission statement.
As slam poetry gains momentum, social media is documenting it and propelling our nature of connection to each other’s personal narratives.