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Beltway Poetry Slam: Intimacy in Confrontational Slam Poetry

BY Maya Simkin

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A lesser known but gradually thriving part of D.C. is its independent creative arts scene—in this case, the poetry slam scene. This afternoon I went to the Shaw Neighborhood Library to see three members of the Beltway Poetry Slam ensemble and one of its students who competes internationally as part of the Teen DC slam team. The close proximity of the poets to the very small audience made the experience very intimate and personal.

Given the awards and recognition the members of this team have won (they are nationally recognized for slam poetry) and the number of chairs set up in a large meeting room at the library, I was expecting a large crowd. To my surprise, there were only a handful of people in the audience. Taking advantage of the intimate setting, the performers introduced themselves to us and we got to hear their banter before the show. Scattered members of the audience were asked to move to the front row to enjoy a more impactful performance. 

Before the slams even started, I felt nervous. These artists, four feet in front of me, were about to pour their hearts out and convey very raw emotion, all the while making direct eye contact with me. I can’t say that my discomfort ever settled, but I think that this is where the most learning happens. The performers gave a prelude to their poems for the sake of context before they delivered them, and finished their presentations by opening up an informal forum where audience members could ask questions and engage in a conversation.

The performers encouraged us to ask questions after their acts so that we could have a dialogue going. The student poet, Cedric, performed a poem reflecting on growing up in the "hood." The open format encouraged an older gentleman to inquire about the Jim Crow language used in the poem by Cedric. He eloquently responded that he decided to reclaim some terms that had been used in a derogatory fashion in the past to describe modern sentiments. Such a conversation, I find, is rarely found in other settings. After this exchange, Pages, one of the poets (also Director of Poetry Events at Busboys and Poets), commented on how rare and special it is to have meaningful conversations between multiple generations about issues that affect both groups. Subsequently, various members of the audience commented on specific lines, or asked for them to be re-said and explained by the poet. The event was an enormous opportunity to ask and learn about artistic intent. 

The poems ranged in theme from race, social justice, family, relationships, and even climate change. Pages delivered a poem titled “Important Things To Know Before Attempting to Date an African or How to Properly Cook Rice,” in which he discussed his upbringing in Cameroon. Each sentence was delivered directly at us, and the entire piece was captivating. Each of the poets spoke loudly, and like during most slam poetry performances, they spoke with rhythm and power. 

For more information on events hosted at DC public libraries (which range from tea swaps, readings, and other unique activities), please refer to the upcoming events calendar at: http://dclibrary.org/calendar. For more slam poetry, Beltway Poetry Slam, in collaboration with Busboys and Poets, will host the Individual World Poetry Slam from Oct. 7-10, which will feature more than 100 performers. Check out the schedule at: http://iwps.poetryslam.com/events/

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