Sunday 31 January 2016


To those who like to say that poetry is dead, Elizabeth Acevedo has a ready answer: poetry is by no means dead, it’s just constantly taking on new forms. And slam is one of these transmutations, where poets recite their work on stage, engaging directly with the audience.

Elizabeth Acevedo
“I see hundreds of young people at slam performances,” says Acevedo, a prize-winning writer and performer based in Washington, D.C. “But some people would like to dismiss this as just yelling. That makes me want to rebel.”

Acevedo was a member of the Beltway team that won the 2014 National Poetry Slam in the United States, by delivering impassioned, uncompromising verse. Since then she has been touring colleges, conducting workshops and giving lectures.

Currently on the road in Europe, she performed in Paris, Sevilla and Brussels in January, drawing attention to the ways in which slam has raised the concerns of women and ethnic minorities through poetry – and, along the way, ruffled establishment feathers.

“If you think of how marginalized people are criticized for being marginal, maybe the work that we’re doing is to get people to understand others’ experiences, to walk in others’ shoes,” Acevedo says. “Art can make people more empathetic.”

During a workshop in Paris, for instance, she recited a haunting poem about police shootings of African-American men, using imagery drawn from her own heritage as an “Afro-Latina”, as she calls herself, and mixing Spanish terms with the English.

Acevedo in performance.
Born in New York City of parents from the Dominican Republic, Acevedo (who turns 28 in February) says she grew up with a love of music and storytelling at home. She initially wanted to be a rap star but got into slam at age 14 because of a teacher who encouraged her to perform her poetry with other schoolmates.

“When I saw how seriously the students took the slam competition, it pushed me to see how I could stand out,” she told SWAN in an interview. But after a few years of contests, she withdrew to concentrate on her studies.

She was working on a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Maryland when she and a team went to the National Poetry Slam, an annual contest that had 72 competing groups in 2014. Acevedo performed an individual poem in each round and was one of about seven women among the final four teams of 16 to 20 contestants.

The team’s win made her realize this could be a career, and over the past year, she has visited some 50 colleges as a performer.

“I’m lucky to be able to make a living from these shows,” she says, adding that she’s sometimes surprised by the chord that her political work strikes. Still, she remains irked by the dismissal, especially among some academics, of slam as a paltry substitute for real poetry.

Acevedo at a Paris bookshop.
(Photo: McKenzie)
Some critics say that the sport-like competitiveness of slam events and the raw political nature of most recitations serve to diminish the art of poetry.

“I don’t think that the fact that it’s different makes it any less powerful,” Acevedo told SWAN. “I’ve seen people cry over a poem at some performances.”

She considers herself part of a growing tradition. It’s almost 26 years since the first National Poetry Slam took place in San Francisco in 1990, following the launch of the genre in 1984 by American poet Marc Smith.

The movement grew in Chicago and later spread to New York, with shows at the Nuyorican Poet's Café, hosted by poet and activist Bob Holman who championed poetry in various forms, particularly spoken word.

Slam’s popularity spread to other countries such as France and England, where many young poets have seized on the art form. In Paris, Acevedo was a guest of Paris Lit Up (PLU), a project that brings writers together and organizes multimedia literary events.

Jason Francis McGimsey, of PLU.
“From the beginning, Paris Lit Up has aimed to create open community spaces where writers can meet, share their work and inspire one another,” says PLU’s executive director, Jason Francis McGimsey. “We try to stress the social nature of writing and the importance of writing communities.”

For artists like Acevedo, one of the attractions of such projects is being able to speak directly to an audience as a writer and to bring poetry to people who might not necessarily read it, or who might have got turned off by the way it was taught in school.

Acevedo is also aware, however, that what sounds good on stage might not bear up under closer scrutiny or work as well on the page.

“How do you walk the line between a poem that’s equally as powerful when it’s performed as when it’s written down?” she muses. “That’s something I’ve been grappling with.”

A chapbook of her work will be published later this year and she’s working on other projects. But she thinks there’s no turning back from slam, despite disparagement of its artistic validity in some quarters.

“It feels sometimes as if we’re bulldozing our way,” she says. “But I’m also just trying to tell the stories I wish I’d been able to read.”  -  A.M.

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