By most accounts, the style of spoken word poetry known as “slam” was started by a working-class poet in a Chicago jazz club in the 1980s. So it’s fitting that our own city of industrial roots is home to a growing number of slam poets and spoken word artists, who are building on the tradition with local raw material. Poets like Tera McIntosh.
She works with at-risk youth, just earned a Ph.D., specializing in asset based community development, and sits on boards of and is involved closely with a number of area non-profits. She’s a Pittsburgh Passion football offensive line player and a pallet furniture builder. McIntosh is also the executive director of the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective, an umbrella organization for youth poetry, Steel City Slam, writing workshops, and community performances. But she has another way to describe herself: “I would call myself more of a social justice poet. Most of my research for my doctorate was done in creating safe spaces for people to come together and build relationships.”
That includes creating safe space for herself. McIntosh came out as a lesbian publicly for the first time while performing her poem “Dear Tyler” in a slam. It was inspired by the bullying that drove Tyler Clemente to take his own life by jumping from a bridge. The last lines read:
If I can stand here today, so can you.
It gets better—it did for me…
and it will for you.
McIntosh says the slam poetry world is so open and accepting, she’s never been afraid to express herself there. “We create better communities when we get to know each other,” she says. And that’s one of the reasons she’s such a big advocate for the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective’s youth program, Young Steel. The exhibition league performs the last Saturday of every month at Cannon Coffee in Brookline, McIntosh’s neighborhood. She says fostering a youth program encourages literacy, problem solving, and cultural learning and acceptance. It also makes for better future slam poets.
The adult poets of Steel City Slam perform August through April, every third Tuesday of the month at the Shadow Lounge in East Liberty to an audience of students, art lovers, and other poets. But they also throw down their own brand of emotional, storytelling-style poetry in hospitals, schools, detention centers, and at literary events in three minute blocks of time, the standard for the genre. And it’s a competition. The 10 or so poets who perform in three rounds rack up points awarded by judges in the audience. Poets with the most points advance to regional and national slam competitions.
Adriana E. Ramirez has been there. She’s the Slam Master of Steel City Slam — she runs the joint — and creative director of Pittsburgh Poetry Collective. The creative writing teacher at the University of Pittsburgh came from the Texas slam scene in 2006. She says the slam style in Houston is Southern Gospel. In Austin, it’s comedic. Here in Pittsburgh?
“We’re a lot quirkier,” she says. Ramirez says her Pittsburgh counterparts are characterized by their sincere voices and interesting work, which reflects the truth of their lives. The group isn’t ranked at the top of the national teams, but they have a lot of heart. On the way to the national competition last year, members performed guerilla slam at each restroom and gas station pit stop along the road.
Ramirez says spoken word scenes evolve based on who shows up. In Pittsburgh it’s diverse, with not one dominant style. “We’ve transcended our traditional cliques,” she says. From straight edge punk to Hispanic female professor, to working class white man — “We kind of love each other with open arms.”
And being different pays off. As a younger poet, Ramirez says, “I was looking to relate to everyone all the time.” Then she realized the more specific she got, the more universal the appeal. She found her voice. Her poem, “For the Cheaters” is a good example. It painfully details the agony and ecstasy in the lives of people who cheat on their romantic partners, from furtive text messages to lying that feels like honesty. Anyone who has cheated or been cheated on, of any race or gender or sexual orientation or class could see themselves in it.
On the way to the national competition last year, members performed guerilla slam at each restroom and gas station pit stop along the road.
The Medium Is the Message
You could see Ramirez perform it on YouTube, but that would be missing half the point. Because slam poetry is for the audience. They are participants, as much as the poets. Their likes and dislikes create the mood of the performance. Ramirez says that though slam is a safe space, there’s inherent judgment. But that immediate feedback — when you know that you are connecting, or not — is really satisfying.
It’s a medium of highs and lows.
Steel City Slam poet and undergrad in creative writing Jude Waldo says, “Slam poetry gets the entire body of the poet involved, and the rush that comes from that is absolutely amazing.”
But not everyone is convinced. Slam poetry has had to compete with some pretty big misconceptions. Think scowling beat poets and other clichés, says Ramirez. She says many assume the format and content are driven by identity politics. Instead, she says, “It’s an immediate and vibrant art form that allows for a lot of variation that people don’t expect.”
Performer and poet Anna Voelker says she loves new audiences for that reason —“I get the honor of exposing them to a totally foreign form of art. Poetry that is spoken, whether on the stage or on a library floor, allows me to not only share what I love, but I get to watch other people learn that they love it, too.”
It is inherently narcissistic, though — and Ramirez says that can be a downside because, “People don’t always think of other people’s lives as important.”
Increasingly the inner and outer lives of LGBTQ youth are being seen as more important — in the gay community and the wider world. The last Monday of each month at the Shadow Lounge, the SPEAQ series supports that reality.
“Really, it’s to perform anything you want to share with people. It’s to give a voice. It’s really just about sharing something that you have to give,” says coordinator Luke Niebler.
The program is a spinoff of Web Poets, an online poetry forum for queer youth and allies. And it’sthe brainchild of Dreams of Hope performance troupe founder Susan Haugh and renowned artist Vanessa German. A series of workshops morphed into a relaxed, non-competitive open mic event. Slam, poems with guitar accompaniment, and hip hop have all had a turn at the mic. Niebler says the offerings may expand to videos or staged readings.
Poetry that is spoken, whether on the stage or on a library floor, allows me to not only share what I love, but I get to watch other people learn that they love it, too.
It’s all driven by a Young Poets Advisory Board– currently four young women aged 17-25. They brought in hip hop artist Chiney Mayne as a guest artist. Poet Soham Patel will headline on January 28, one day after Dreams of Hope premiers it’s 10th anniversary season. And of course, about ten young performers will also go on.
Niebler says for him and the other young performers, the pure terror leading up to that moment in the spotlight is strangely a draw.
“Every single time the sign up list stays real empty until about halfway through the performance, then people are slowly building up courage, they’re seeing other people put themselves out there.”
Michelle Reed, a member of the Young Poets Advisory Board, is compelled to get up on other grounds. She says, “I perform because I like being on stage and to get recognition as a writer. You have to start somewhere.” But for her, excitement is still a big part of it–“Like when I hear a particular melody or voice in the music world that causes my adrenaline to rise…that’s the feeling I want people to have with the things that I say.”
Many slam and spoken word poets say their aim isn’t to be taken too seriously — it’s to entertain. Adriana E. Ramirez, who performs all over the country, says providing a voice, an outlet, is invaluable. She and her teammates would also like to grow Steel City Slam, get more support from the city, and nurture partnerships like the one they have with the Shadow Lounge and their new programs with the Union Project. But in the end they just want people to know, through experience or word-of-mouth or the Pittsburgh Literary, “We’re doing this rad thing, and it’s really fun,” she says.
For more information, visit pghpoetry.org, dreamsofhope.org/speaq, webpoets.dreamsofhope.org or Calendar (sampsoniaway.org/pittsburghliterarycalendar/index.php