Words are a tricky business.
You can say a lot with a few and nothing with a lot and if you’re very, very lucky, you can sometimes navigate your way to a space in between.
Ask Wikipedia to define a poetry slam — which, by the way, is a competition where poets read their work aloud — and it will spit out blocks of text, paragraphs on history, formatting and criticisms. Whoever created this thing was eager to please.
Ask Davon Clark to reveal the secret to a truly great slam poem and he can do it in three words.
“Telling your truth,” Clark said.
Clark is the president of Penn State Writers Organized to Represent Diverse Stories, an organization out to create an environment that is conducive to sharing personal narratives and experiences through creative writing.
W.O.R.D.S. is the driving force behind Penn State’s first slam poetry team, a collection of five artists who will compete in the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational from April 6 to 9 at the University of Austin in Texas.
Clark was one of the handful of poets selected for the team, along with students David Gaines, Abby Kennedy, Rabiyatu Jalloh and Ka’lee Strawbridge-Moten.
The selection process occurred over a series of poetry slams held last fall, three preliminary bouts with one final.
I’ve performed at THON and Touch of Africa, two of Penn State’s largest student-run events; and even though I’m lauded as one of Penn State greatest poets, the Slam Series was a fierce competition and it challenged every notion of me being ‘the best.’ So in short, I was nervous as hell.
“I’ve performed at Thon and Touch of Africa, two of Penn State’s largest student-run events,” said Gaines, who is the vice president of W.O.R.D.S. “And even though I’m lauded as one of Penn State’s greatest poets, the Slam Series was a fierce competition and it challenged every notion of me being ‘the best.’ So in short, I was nervous as hell.”
The team began preparation last November under the guidance of graduate student and coach Gabriel Green, who was a CUPSI 2015 finalist.
Green stressed the importance of the work going on in the small room the team occupied late one night in the HUB-Robeson Center. The discussions surrounding each poem, getting the words down on paper — this is the performance. What happens on stage is simply the encore.
“I’ve tried to stress the importance of respecting the process,” Green said.
During practice, the group took turns going around the room and reading their poems aloud.
It’s that last word that provides the small but crucial difference Green had identified earlier in the evening, the vocal delivery that separates slam poetry from verses confined to a page.
“I grew up without a voice and my writing allowed for me to creatively express my beliefs, opinions and views,” Gaines said. “I was attracted to slam poetry because I’m also a performer.”
More challenging than any feat of oration may be the blending of different visions and voices into a cohesive voice. Slam poetry is a team sport.
Most of the poems are two-person group performances, with input from all five student-poets and their coach solicited during the editing and rehearsal process.
“We balance each other out really well. Our different writing styles, our personalities and perspectives helped make our poems dynamic and unique,” Gaines said. “Our group pieces aren’t about traditional topics, nor do they follow typical CUPSI conventions, so we expect that to give us an advantage at the competition.”
Clark said the collaborative process has helped him to grow as a person and allowed him to get to know people with whom he wouldn’t normally give himself the chance to interact.
Artistic processes converging is messy. I think the hardest part making sure that the sacrifices made are mutual reciprocated and appreciated.
“Artistic processes converging is messy,” Clark said. “I think the hardest part is making sure that the sacrifices made are mutually reciprocated and appreciated.”