At 6:39 p.m. Monday, the second floor of the Julian A. McPhee University Union (UU) was bustling, as it always is, with students toting Starbucks cups as they looked for open spots to sit down and study. An insulating hubbub protected any single voice from rising above the rest. But a minute later, the vast room was dead silent.
“What did he say?” one girl whispered. “A poetry slam?”
Nobody had noticed the line of people that had surreptitiously formed outside the doors to Chumash Auditorium, and by this point was snaking through tables all the way to Associated Student Inc.’s (ASI) main office. Not until that line burst into cheers at the mention of the 10th annual Anthem Poetry Slam, that is. That line became a substantial crowd once inside the auditorium, and it kept cheering (and yelping and howling) for a few voices which rose above the rest.
For the uninitiated, a poetry slam is an event during which poets perform their work for an audience with fiery passion and solemn sincerity. The poets tell stories and bring experiences to life with striking metaphors and razor-sharp descriptions. Typically, judges assign numerical scores to each performance, but just as in “Whose Line is it Anyway?”, everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. In fact, the preferred unisonous audience response to each announcement of scores was proclaimed to be a lusty “Who gives a fuck?” right from the beginning.
Content and spirit were valued far more than points. Saying that everything is made up might be a bit misleading. The professional poets who visited Monday night may have creatively written their pieces, but the material refers to entirely real and startlingly personal experiences.
Take Doc Luben. With a fervency suggesting that he might jump right out of his very stylish pants, he first encapsulated his struggles with mental illness into a pseudo-story about the “mistakes” video game developers leave behind in their code.
“I’m a hacker!” he explained, referring to an incident when doctors “tried to unprogram the handfuls of pills I installed.”
If that seems like a jarring comparison between inconsequential computer stuff and a terrifying real-life experience, that’s because it’s meant to be. The artistic license afforded by poetry gives unprecedented power to these stories which would otherwise be lost in the hubbub of all the other problems in the world.
Sometimes poetry slams acquire a reputation for being a haven to loud and eloquent complainers, but that was far from the truth at The Anthem. The poets were there to give a voice to everyone who shared in their hardships and to everyone who cared for their causes. They enveloped the room with verses everyone could engage in, even if their realism could at times be uncomfortable.
It might not have been easy to listen to Rachel Wiley repeat the hurtful lines that have been directed at her due to her struggle with obesity, nor was it easy to hear Tonya Ingram confront the reality of her Lupus diagnosis or Joshua Merchant relive the dysfunction his sexuality caused in his relationships with family members. The important part is that everyone listened and empathized. We all undergo, in one form or another, versions of the pain that these poets know all too well. Those that have seen the most have the most to say, and those brave voices were given a chance to speak for the rest of us. Perhaps some of the occupants of Chumash Auditorium were inspired to speak up for themselves, while others were motivated to confront their own issues in a similarly bold and spirited manner. Either way, everyone left with an elevated eagerness to live with purpose and panache, galvanized by the scientifically inexplicable power of the medium.
Ruben put that newfound desire most succinctly into words in his closing lines.
“I want to be a great story to tell,” he said.
Of course by then he had already proven himself to be exactly that.