At the second gathering of the Woosh Kinaadeiyí poetry slam last fall in Juneau, a teenage girl approached the mike and began reciting a poem about her struggles with homophobia and depression. About half-way through, she faltered, nearly overpowered by emotion. The audience quickly let her know that they weren’t there as passive observers.
“We snapped and clapped throughout the poem to give her some strength and show her ‘we’re listening, we’re here for you, keep going, say what you need to say,’” said Woosh Kinaadeiyí co-organizer Christy NaMee Eriksen.
Soon the girl was able to move forward and finish the poem, and as she left the stage, everyone in the audience stood and applauded her. Eriksen said she was awed by the whole thing – the poem, the poet and the audience’s reaction. Eriksen’s co-organizer, Nahaan, said he knew at that point that the event had taken on a life of its own.
“I think that’s when we started to realize that it wasn’t just a poetry slam that we were providing a space for, it was something much larger than that on so many different levels,” Nahaan said. “I’m sure we’re even just now starting to tap into the possibilities.”
The Woosh Kinaadeiyí poetry slam will celebrate its one-year anniversary Friday with a Grand Slam event, featuring poetry by former poetry slam champions and long-time supporters. Eriksen said the monthly gathering, held every third Friday at the Canvas, has attracted a wide range of participants over the past year, from Tlingit elders to 9-year-old girls, published poets to novices, who share works ranging from erotic love poetry to rants against racism. Poets “compete” at the slam by performing their poems at the mic, and though poets are often reading from words on a page, part of the challenge is to engage their audience with body language, energy and spirited delivery. Audience members frequently push that energy back to the poet -- snapping or clapping to show their enthusiasm or encourage the poet’s performance. In this way, the event is as much about shared experience as it is about the craft of poetry itself.
“Slam poetry exists somewhere in the nexus between music and story-telling,” said frequent Woosh Kinaadeiyí poetry slam participant Michael Christenson, one of Friday’s returning champions. “And while it’s possible to make music at home in your bedroom studio, it doesn’t work that well telling stories to the wall. It really takes listeners to complete the triangle of poet, poem and audience.”
Eriksen said the community-building inclusiveness and accessibility of slam poetry is one of the things that appealed to her from the first, and that she and Nahaan made an effort to reach disenfranchised groups who might not have felt as comfortable or accepted in more mainstream literary circles. The social justice aspect of slam poetry is highlighted in its emphasis on speaking up and speaking out, and on supporting others in doing the same thing.
“I was really drawn to the social justice aspect of it, it was about creating a place for poetry and expression and a safe space to be real and be honest, but it was also something that really engages us in our community.”
Eriksen herself, a Korean adoptee who grew up in Juneau, said she didn’t really think much about poetry while in school.
“I didn’t graduate high school thinking, ‘oh my god I love poetry!’ because I didn’t really see myself (in it).”
Then, as a freshman in college, she went to hear Vietnamese American spoken word poet Bao Phi, and that experience changed her mind about the form, opening her up to its possibilities for social change and personal expression.
“I was floored. I was almost in tears, just being able to see someone say things out loud that I had been told, so much of my life, you don’t say out loud, you certainly don’t do it in front of 800 people. And you don’t call it art,” she said. “So it was an incredibly empowering experience for me just to see parts of my stories represented on a large scale.”
Nahaan, who is Tlingit on his mother’s side and Paiute on his father’s, said that for him spoken word poetry taps into the strong oral traditions of his ancestors, and Tlingit culture’s respect for well-considered speech.
“In our culture we say ‘watch your words’ because they lay heavily and we put a lot of weight in whatever is said -- ceremonially, publicly -- there’s a lot of weight there. Our words have a lot of value. I think poetry has that same kind of feeling, you kind of adjust your ears to listen to it at that time.”
Nahaan said he tries to make his words clear and from the heart — whether he’s addressing a poetry slam or a potlatch. For him, maintaining a strong voice is also an acknowledgment of the forced silences in Tlingit history.
“My grandma, when she was raised she spoke fluent poetry — fluent Tlingit — but she went to a boarding school and she got punished for speaking that,” he said. “They tried to work that poetry out of her tongue, out of her blood line.”
“They told our community ‘you can’t speak your language, it’s not your job to speak up, you stay quiet and this is how it is.’ So there’s a lot of that energy left over. Our grandparents are the ones who experienced that. So to me, when I speak — publicly, confidently, and with heart — it’s kind of the opposite of what my grandmother experienced and in a way that helps to stop that pain and helps to empower the next generations.”
This past year the Woosh Kinaadeiyí poetry slam has built up its own community of supporters— poets and listeners — drawing back repeat participants as well as attracting new voices. Both organizers say they’ve been gratified to see it take off and appreciative of the diversity of voices represented.
“You learn to relate to people and you can see something beautiful in everyone you listen to on the microphone, and that alone makes it so you’re able to learn from a 9-year-old, you’re able to learn from a 12-year-old, and you humble yourself, maybe without even knowing it,” Nahaan said. “It opens you up.”
The slams can be particularly valuable in pointing up the commonalities between us, he said.
“We can all understand each other, and I think that’s one of the biggest exclamation points,” he said. “There’s a lot of those things that are closed off, that we personally close off inside ourselves and we say that’s too much for other people to know. But in all reality everybody experiences a lot of the same stuff.”
The slams also help navigate the boundary between private and public -- even for those who may not feel comfortable exposing their feelings in other situations. Woosh Kinaadeiyí participating poet Laurel Araki said that though she is normally a private person, the slam allows her to break from the level of privacy she normally maintains in her daily life.
“Personally, I tend to be a very private person when it comes to my inner thoughts and feelings,” Araki said. “Poetry has always been my primary outlet, where I can truly feel comfortable in expressing myself. Since I’ve started actually performing some of my pieces at the Canvas, I feel like I’ve finally had some closure in those areas of my life that had gone unheard for so long.”
Participating poet Dee Jay DeRego said having a poem be understood by a listener — even just one — is a transformative experience.
“It’s easy to get very emotional and feel vulnerable and I can’t imagine anyone ever hearing the poem, but then I get up to the slam mic and it’s like the poem couldn’t have been written for any other group of people,” DeRego said.
“It’s just humbling to be there in a room full of strangers who actually want to listen to you, and understand what it is that makes you you.”
The atmosphere of support created at the Canvas during the slam also points the way toward community-building on a larger scale, Eriksen and Nahaan said.
“I think there’s tons already in our daily lives that discourages us from being emotional or even connected to people,” Eriksen said. “We really value being independent, professional, clear and direct. And those are great things, but I think we do everything we can to get back to what is actually natural, to tap into what you’re really feeling and give everybody a chance to feel connected to you and be vulnerable with each other.”
“For me in a lot of ways this is just a practice session or a training ground for what takes place in life – political change, social change, even just being able to have a heart-to-heart with your parents,” he said.
“It readies you for other experiences in your life. To have healthy communication — it’s the root of everything we do in our lives.”
Know and go
What: Woosh Kinaadeiyí Poetry Grand slam, the poetry slam’s one year birthday party, featuring champions from the last year (Sami Martinez, Kayo Kate Laster, MD Christenson, Laurel Araki, Pat Race, Dee Jay, and Latavia Lofftus) and opening performances by long-time supporters (Ginny Potts, Grace Lumba, Roberta McCauley, Bill Merk, Mike Godkin, and Chablee Hinton). After party begins at 9, with music by DJ Manu.
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21
Where: The Canvas, 223 Seward St., downtown.
Details: Pay as you can, $5 suggested donation. Feel free to bring food or cupcakes for the after party. Woosh Kinaadeiyí T-shirts will be for sale for $20.