After my divorce and move to Florida in July 2015, I set out to make new friends. I got the MeetUp app on my phone and discovered an interesting-sounding group called the Writers of Central Florida or Thereabouts... (ellipsis intended). They have meetings a few times a month at über-hip cafes in the Orlando area where attendees basically tell stories and read poetry. I decided to check it out, and in November I attended my first Short Attention Span Storytelling Hour at the Stardust Cafe in Winter Park, not knowing what to expect.
I should give you some context here. I'm not a creative/artsy person. Yes, I make custom jewelry, and while most would consider that a creative pursuit, I appreciate more the making of it and the use of the tools required than the ideas that pop into my head for my pieces. Whatever; I'm weird that way. I'm the mom who can't come up with an imaginary story for my kids to save my life. I'm the painter who can copy almost anything, but I'm like a deer in the headlights if you put a blank canvas in front of me. The same goes for paper; writing articles and analysis is easy because I have tons of material to sift through and start with. But I novel? Pfffffffft; MUCH respect to writers who can invent entire worlds and the characters who inhabit them because I just can't do it. I'm also not a hippie, or hipster, or politically liberal-minded, so this was not the crowd I was used to. I loved it immediately.
|My book excerpt reading|
I had heard of slam poetry before, mostly due to HBO's old series Def Poetry Jam from the 1990s. I knew it involved short pieces spoken pretty quickly, and often loudly with a lot of emotion (usually anger) involved. However, I had never seen it performed in person. That night in December 2015 in the Stardust Cafe changed my view of the written word forever. I heard my new friends Curtis, Karis, Eddie, and Matt deliver words in some of the most delicious sequences I had ever heard. Their grasp of the English language and their ability to convey ideas--some funny, some serious--in a way that made me laugh, tear up, smile, and think hard was truly mind-boggling. I wanted more.
Fortunately, "the poets" were kind enough to invite me into their world--much of which is centered at a certified poetry slam venue called The Milk Bar Lounge not too far from downtown Orlando. It was here that I attended my first poetry slam...and I was floored. I will warn you; the content is not for the weak. Some of these gifted poets are young enough to be my own kid. Despite their youth, they have seen things and experienced things--pain, hunger, depression, loneliness, addiction, discrimination--that I can never relate to. But that didn't matter; my politics are very middle-of-the-road, and while I don't always agree with the poets' viewpoints, I always appreciate their passion and their talent.
Being around all this energy made me want to write. But me? A poet? Pffffffft. I'm an analyst; I can't really get that deep on a personal level (I think). I've had a great life, a good childhood. I've never experienced hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism, or sexism (despite being a Latina female in male-dominated fields). What on earth could I draw from? It seemed like good slam poetry could only come from a place of pain. But I gave it a shot anyway; I tried to write what I know.
|Liquid courage before my|
first poetry reading
Last week, I read my first original poems at the monthly storytelling session at the Stardust. I was nervous as all get-out, despite the fact I speak regularly in front of hundreds of people as part of my day job. But this...this was far more personal. I didn't create Mexico's drug war; I just help make sense of it for other people. But poems? These come from a place inside me no one else can see. Exposing that to dozens of (mostly) strangers is a brutal experience, for both newbie and veteran alike.
|Ready with my 'Red Light' poem!|
This slam was a bit different in that it was a team competition. I threw myself into the "mound" of available poets for four captains to choose from. Luckily, my VERY gifted poet friends Troy and Kira decided to take a chance on a newbie and picked me for their team, along with my new friend AC. As we got closer to the start of the slam, the venue grew crowded. The energy was amazing; all these people jammed into a tiny bar to cheer and jeer people reading...three-minute poems! It was insane.
|Conspiring with the team|
I'm happy to say that it ended up working out. My poem was about a woman who pulls up next to a man at a stop light, and in that 120-second space has a stream of consciousness relationship with him from start to finish. I tried to make it funny, and I hoped the audience--especially women--could relate. Somehow it connected with the audience and the judges, and despite a 3-second time penalty, my marks were high enough to help put our slam team in the winner's circle! It took a couple of hours for the adrenaline rush to subside, and I couldn't help going over every amazing little detail of that night--the great people, the poems, the emotions, the good-natured ribbing, and the energy.
|A great slam with great friends!|
When I woke up the next morning, all I wanted to do was write more poems. I posted some funny meme on Facebook about a tree getting revenge through paper cuts, and Curtis immediately challenged me to write a persona poem about being a tree. Done! The next slam I'm eligible to compete in is on February 11, and my set is ready to go. But does this newfound ease for writing slam-length poems mean I'm a bona fide poet???
I'm still not sure. Does putting thoughts and feelings into some kind of rhyming structure on paper make you a poet? Do you have to read it aloud, or get paid to write it to be a "real" poet? Do you have to use the audience as a therapist and bare your heart and soul with every reading? I just started doing this a couple of months ago, and my team slam victory aside, I'm a big believer in paying dues. I long to hear more poems, I long to write more slam poems, and I long to compete with myself (more so than other poets) to get better at it. I feel very strange putting myself in the same category as these verbal masters. But I'll hang around for as long as they'll let me :).