Sharing stories through poetry and spoken word with Slam Richmond

by | Aug 20, 2015 | POLITICS

My mind was first opened to the possibilities of live spoken word performances at a Slam event back in 2006.

My mind was first opened to the possibilities of live spoken word performances at a Slam event back in 2006. It was moving to see everyday people share their thoughts and feelings to a room full of strangers. Meanwhile, an undercurrent of competition put a strange spin on it. Some were there to bare their souls, others to be actors in their own one person play. And of course, the audience just wanted to feel a connection.

This list was in the latest RVAMag print issue – #21 Summer 2015 – you can read the entire issue here online!

We covered the local poetry scene a few times in early issues of RVA Mag, even running poetry in our pages at times. It’s taken a long time for us to catch up on the current happenings in the local RVA scene, but when I stepped into an event a few weeks ago to take stock, I found myself right back in that same headspace from a decade ago. Seeing new faces alongside familiar veterans made me realize once again how much this city’s artistic community has grown in the past decade. Poetry is the foundation for so many art forms, and to find a group of people that embrace its is encouraging.

Sharing Richmond’s stories is an important mission. These poets are documenting our shared experiences, and the story of our community, in human terms–getting beyond the facts to the real heart of the matter.

In order to present an accurate picture of what’s happening locally, we caught up with several of the poets most heavily involved in organizing events around RVA today. Cel Landicho, Slam Richmond‘s organizer and MC, was our first connection, and he led us to several other local poets with varying levels of experience in the scene. Their combined answers help to paint the broad brushstrokes of what’s happening around town–but to really understand, you’ll have to attend an event in person. Learn why you should, and how you can, below.

The MC: Cel Landicho (sketched below)

What is Slam Poetry?

First off, to clear the air, I hate to have it labeled as “slam poetry.” Poetry slams are competitions intended to get poetry into more venues. Originally the only places to perform were bars, pool halls and the like; not the most ideal place to have an audience actively listen to your craft. As a competition, poets now found themselves with large audience that were listening–they just had to find a way to reach them. To call it “slam poetry” would be akin to calling it “competition poetry.” I prefer spoken word–slam is just one avenue of the medium.

How did you get involved?

I became involved with Slam Richmond a little over three years ago. I started as a competing poet, trying to make it onto their adult team, bound for the National Poetry Slam. Week in and week out I worked with and grew closer with other poets who were passionate about bettering their craft, as well as the community. Eventually the host stepped down and handed duties over to several of the veteran remaining poets including Michelle Dodd, Robert Owens, and myself.

You travel over an hour each way by bus to MC these weekly events. Why is this so important to you?

There are two sayings in our community: “Poetry saves lives,” and “Poetry is necessary.” These are not clichés, these are undeniable truths that I have witnessed firsthand. Anyone who has come to a poetry venue enough times can attest to that. We watch people find their voice and in turn use that to help others. Having a hand in making that possible for so many has been such an amazing experience. Traveling a couple hours to do so is a small price to pay for the opportunities we give people.

I’ve been to a few readings and it feels at times like a group therapy session–is there some truth to that?

Several people have come through here as their version of therapy, because it is so freeing. The world is such a crazy place and most aren’t ready for all the truths clawing their ways out of our mouths. We provide a safe space, meaning anyone is free to express themselves. Free from judgment and pretense, we come together because we know how much it means just to be allowed to breathe sometimes.

Do you feel the community is growing?

The community is growing rapidly, with several events going on per week depending on the season. What I would like to see is a more united community though, something I feel has been lacking in this area for quite some time.

What advice would you give someone that wanted to start their journey in spoken word poetry?

My advice to anyone starting out? Take advantage of as many open mics as possible. Find your comfort level and a style suitable for your voice. Just be sure to find your voice. Also never be afraid of getting in stage and never apologize for your poetry, those words are your feelings, they once were or are still real, never apologize.

The Poets: Lydia Armstrong, Robert Owens, Jonas Rollins, & Michelle Dodd

How did you get involved in spoken word?

Lydia Armstrong (sketched above):I found out about Slam Richmond while searching writers’ meet-ups online. I’d been writing a novel for two years and was looking to connect with other writers for inspiration. At first I went just to listen. I had no intention of getting onstage or ever becoming part of this community. I hadn’t written poetry since high school. I just wanted to be inspired by other people doing their craft, hoping it would give me the inspiration to go home and keep plugging away at this massive project I’d been working on for so long. But on the third Saturday in a row that I went, I was sitting in the audience listening to someone nail their poem, and I was like, “That looks so cool. I want to do that.” So I went home, and wrote a poem, and when I came back the following Saturday, I got onstage and read it.

Robert Owens: Like many others, I was inspired by HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. I never truly experienced so many ways to call something a poem before, and it helped me realize what I was doing was writing poetry. After too many years I was finally able to find the combination of the right city and the right day off. I spent Saturday, January 1st, 2011 at both the workshop and the open mic at Slam Richmond and never looked back. The experience of being with people who shared many of the same thoughts and ideas with me was an amazing and surprisingly uncommon moment.

Jonas Rollins: In my freshman year of high school, I signed up for a spoken word elective on a whim. My first day in the class, a friend of mine performed an improvised spoken word piece and it blew me away. I’d never really seen anyone so perfectly describe their experience. Something in me clicked and I fell in love with the art. Toward the end of that year, the teacher mentioned a poetry spot down by Art Space, so I showed up one Saturday and saw people take the art that I had fallen in love with to a whole new level. I started showing up every Saturday and writing a lot more.

Michelle Dodd: I got involved through a poetry group at ODU, where I went to college. From there I started to watch and listen to everything I could get a hold of. I wanted to be a part of this world I never knew existed. I started going to open mics and reciting my poems. A good friend of mine, Roscoe Burnems, introduced me to Slam Richmond. He made me compete the first night I was there and I became enthralled [with] the action of slamming. I loved it.

What subjects do you deal with in your poetry?

Lydia Armstrong: I have OCD, and it’s hard to talk about in normal settings. No one really wants to hear about your struggle, not in everyday life when your friends just want to grab a beer or go to the movies or make small talk. People only want to hear about your breakups and your heartache for so long. I talk about people who’ve broken my heart, about family issues I have, about how I don’t really feel like I have a solid place in the world. I talk about every doubt I’ve ever had, about all my insecurities, about all the crazy shit in my head. The people who regularly hear me do spoken word know me better than my best friends and closest family, because it’s the one place in my life where I can talk about anything, and no one gets tired of hearing it.

Robert Owens: Most of my poetry deals with political events and concepts. I want to be the person changing the popular narrative into the truthful narrative. When writing about myself and my life, most of my writing deals with either my privilege as a white male or my bouts with depression. Sometimes I even accidentally write happy poems!

Jonas Rollins (sketched above): My father left my mom [when I was] very young, so I didn’t see him much until I got a bit older, he was always a drinker but for most of my life [I] blocked out a pretty obvious truth–that my father had been struggling with alcohol addiction for my entire childhood. It’s only really been since I started writing that it really surfaced in my brain, just how much of a problem it was. It really wrecked me emotionally. Poetry helped–and still helps–me cope with a lot of those emotions and the other mental arguments that come with having separated parents. I really try my best to create a way for people who haven’t seen or experienced firsthand the kind of things that addiction can do to a family, to understand what it’s like. It might help them realize an obvious truth they’ve been keeping under the surface.
Michelle Dodd: Typically I write about my life experiences. I have been through a lot, the majority being while I was at college. I write about topics that could need a trigger warning. Most of my poems are about abandonment, rape, abuse, medication, and suicide, because I have experienced it all. Now my writing is becoming more of a platform, not only for me, but for [people] who’ve been through similar situations. I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been through and feel alone.

Was it difficult for you to go up and share your work?

Lydia Armstrong: The first time I read, I felt like my heart was beating out of my chest. It was like in cartoons when you can see the outline of someone’s heart actually coming through their skin. I couldn’t even pay attention to the poets who went before me. It’s not just public speaking or that everyone is looking at you–you’re about to share something that came from a personal place inside you, and everything is on the table. But after I did it, I felt on top of the world.

Robert Owens: Most people have the “paperquake” the first time they share and I was no different; though I suppose it’s more of a cell phone shake these days. In a way it was hard–the nervousness, my reserved nature being incompatible with being the focus of everyone’s attention. But in a way it was very easy; I was staring directly at words I believed in and all I had to do was say them. It’s a very powerful moment.

Jonas Rollins: The first time you hit the stage is always nerve-wracking and it wasn’t any different for me, but Slam Richmond has one of the best communities I’ve ever seen–everyone is really supportive and honestly just wants to see people write and perform better. With that atmosphere, I was able to quickly get over those initial jitters and commit more to the stage. That being said, whenever I’m trying out a new style of writing or doing a piece that I know is very emotional for me, I do get few butterflies; but all of that fades pretty quickly once I get up. Not focusing on the crowd or what anyone might think, and simply letting the emotions and words flow, is a great way to help you get past a lot of nervousness. The people here will support you no matter what.

Michelle Dodd (sketched above): Performing gets easier with practice, but sharing your heart and every beat that keeps it running can be scary. I have had many times where I get off the stage and cry because it’s overwhelming. However, sharing is cathartic, and I always feel better afterwards.

What’s your feeling on poetry slams? Have you performed at one?

Lydia Armstrong: We have them at Slam Richmond every couple of weeks, and I’ve done larger ones where money is on the line, or a spot in a higher competition. At Slam Richmond, we do it for the love of the game, and to practice our skills. The competition side of spoken word can get a little hairy, but I like it because it challenges me to write better poetry and learn how to connect with the audience. The goal is always to reach someone and make a difference to someone, and the poems I write to slam with are tighter and more concise with my message.

Robert Owens (sketched above): I’ve been in a fair number of slams, my first being several months after my first appearance at Slam Richmond. There are a lot of emotions and intricacies in slam poetry. First, like any art, there are many disciplines, goals and personalities in the slam community. For some, slam is a tool to be heard. For others, it’s a way to coordinate performance with their own truth. One thing that is certain is there is no such thing as a slam poet. There are only poets who participate in slams. Maybe some people craft their work around the audience but who is to say a writer of science fiction or romance does anything different? What I do love about slam is [that it] gives poetry a place to breathe and be heard. Poetry, to me, is much more amazing aloud. The stories are more real, more personal, more undeniable.

I also see slam poetry as being embraced by many communities. Poetry has always had a tinge of elitism as previously you had to be affluent and white to even read standard English, let alone compose poems. Even now universities do not view the intersectionality of voice with racial, gender, and sexuality as important or further as a true poetic expression. That’s why you can get some sneers and classification as a “slam poet” in different parts of the poetry community at-large. I believe poets are in a great position to get the world behind the things artists typically believe in such as social justice, equality, peaceful interaction, and the ability to grow able to confront all of our inner demons.

Jonas Rollins: I’ve performed in quite a few slams, including on our youth team that we send each year to a competition called Brave New Voices. I really enjoy slamming. I feel that little extra pressure of it being a competition helps me to perform better. Some of my most emotional and intense performances have come out of a slam. It helps to how no one at Slam Richmond is really cutthroat when it comes to the competition. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to win, but at the end of the day we’re here for the writing.

Michelle Dodd: I have been in tons of slams. I enjoy it. They do get intense. I like the rush I get when it comes down to a three minute time limit and it challenges you to leave everything on the stage. We call it getting free, and that is what I do in slams. For me, it’s more about the performing aspect, rather than the scores from judges, or even winning. I’ve really just fallen in love with the feeling of sharing.

How would you describe your experience being part of this group of poets?

Lydia Armstrong: I’m in the healthiest, most balanced place I’ve ever been in my life, and I would not be here if I didn’t find this community. This isn’t just a open mic venue, it’s family, and it’s the most supportive group of people I’ve ever seen assembled in one place. It’s extremely therapeutic to get onstage and share your truth, unload your burdens. We call each other “slam-ily,” but it’s not just the core members of Slam Richmond that facilitate this atmosphere. We have new poets every week, and there’s a welcome and safety between us that I just haven’t experienced anywhere else. If my first spoken word experience hadn’t been Slam Richmond, I may have never gotten onstage.

Robert Owens: There is always catharsis in poetry. No matter what you say, it’s something you want to say. I think that’s so important, having a voice – ensuring you live with your own voice. Not only do you get to delve into topics embedded in your life but some of us with the harshest experiences truly get a release. I think the group of poets in Richmond and every city that participates in regional, national, and international competitions are all a very special group who are all so meaningful yet still so human. I’m glad to be in Richmond and have been able to meet such a great variety of people who had a lot to teach me through their approaches to poetry and to life. Such a diverse group of people has been important in giving me relationships I hadn’t had before.

Jonas Rollins: For me being a part of Slam Richmond has been the ultimate form of therapy. Writing helped me put a lot of demons in my life to rest. Finding the best way to express your feelings and experiences to an audience there to accept and support you is one of the greatest joys of my life and has really changed me for the better as a person. If it wasn’t for the support of this community I don’t if I would have ever realized my father’s problem, and if it wasn’t for the mending words of everyone at Slam Richmond, I don’t know if I would have been able to finally make amends with him.

Michelle Dodd: Therapy, for sure. They get me out of my comfort zone and show way more than support for anyone going through a rough time. There are places where people come together once a week for the slams and then they don’t speak until the next one. This group, Slam Richmond, is a family. We talk every day, about anything and everything.

Are there any upcoming local events that people should know about?

Lydia Armstrong: Richmond has tons of poetry events. Every Tuesday there’s Verses at Addis Ethiopian Restaurant in Shockoe. Chris Randolph and Roscoe Burnems were doing a Friday event at The Top, which recently ended, but you can check out Think Rich RVa and The Writer’s Den Poetry Slam on Facebook to find out what their next chapter is. VCU has an awesome poetry group that hosts an open mic on Mondays during the school year, and there’s an organization called Sanctuary RVA that uses poetry and music as outlets for men and women who were once incarcerated. I’m hoping Slam Richmond can partner with them soon to maybe do some fundraising slams or workshops together. And our very own Robert Owens hosts an open mic in Fredericksburg called Commonwealth Slam that’s definitely worth the road trip.

Robert Owens: I run a show a minimum of once a month in Fredericksburg, Virginia. That’s how much Slam Richmond has meant to me – I want to give the same thing in other communities. People can visit to learn more. I’d encourage everyone to also attend Good Clear Sound at VCU, another free show, during fall and spring semesters on campus. VCU has reached the final stage at the last two College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) slams, the gathering of most college slam teams, and even hosted the event this year.

Jonas Rollins: BNV, or Brave New Voices, is an all-youth international slam with teams coming out to compete from California to Guam. I had the privilege of being on the Slam Richmond youth team that we send each year to BNV, and it was a truly life changing experience. Just being able to be a part of it and witness so many poets [my] age perform at such an incredible level was really awe-inspiring and made me realize what can be accomplished if you really work at improving your writing.

Michelle Dodd: We have our open mics every Saturday at ArtSpace (0 E. 4th St). [They] start at 8:30pm. The events I want to stress the most are our writing and performance workshops. They are free and very in-depth.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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