Walk in. Scope the place. Hover around the edges. You know, be a poet. Rich Oak, the crew behind the Oakland Poetry Slam, wants you to be your own full-on, badass poet selves.
In October, the Slam came home to Luca’s Taproom, indoors for the first time since the pandemic hit.
To see what the crew is really about, I join the workshop they run before every show. Q: Do their poetry chops go beyond the hard-flow identity poetry that dominates slams but leaves some poetry buffs wanting? A: This crew is very much about bringing the power of poetry to the community in every form they can.
Crewmember Tino V.H Jr. circles up four of us around a high top with pads and pens. On his open laptop, other participants Zoom in from afar.
Tino primes us through exercises, then prompts us to write about a time that love wasn’t enough. In contrast to our timid introductions, each poet relaxes into that place for writing where the soul takes over musculature and calms the body. The world passes into us and out through our pens. We share. After reading my poem to the group, I cry, too internally for the others to see. In short, we did poetry.
“You get to Oakland and it’s like, there is a really big poetry scene here, but none of it is very institutionalized,” Tino says. “We just barely got an Oakland Poet Laureate this year, like you know, for Oakland … not having a laureate [was disregarding] the culture that is happening in Oakland.”
Fellow organizer and MC for the night, Collin Edmonds, has joined us. “Big institutions can further the culture, but I think they willingly choose not to,” he says.
“This is our dilemma as an organization. When nonprofits get to be a certain size, they start operating like a business,” Collin says. “They lose their mission almost. As we get bigger … maybe even doing things across the country … our big question is, ‘How do we stay true to ourselves … and to the culture?’”
The night’s DJ, Reggie Edmonds, crewmember and sibling of Collin, spins hip-hop, lifts the crowd. Back at the high top, workshop mates mouth the poems we will perform any minute.
Behind me, crewmember Prophet Write gathers judges into a tight circle, his words out of reach but the message crystal clear—get hyped.
Collin takes the stage to tentative applause, almost as if we have forgotten how. He calls bullshit. “On a Tuesday night, I need to hear more applause than that!” We almost get there this time.
At slams it is best practice to bring attitude and to leave shyness at home. I stride up, knowing I have the full support of the crowd, crew and fellow poets. Without preamble, lost and free in the lights of the stage, I am a king making his decree. 2 minutes and 38 seconds later, without another word, I jump down, stride back into the dark. The judges hate me, but the supportive boos pick me up. We can feel safe here to speak our truth, our way.
“I want to see a world where I don’t need poetry to express my humanity, because we’ve taken care of that through our actions,” Reggie says. “I want to write about flowers and gardens and things that don’t have to do with being Black and queer and oppressed. But I’m Black and queer oppressed and until that … I mean I don’t want to stop being Black and queer, but I would like to stop being oppressed.”
“That part,” croons the Prophet.
Asia Bryant-Wilkerson, the fierce, funny feature poet of the evening, has joined the circle. She points out, “Even when we do start writing about flowers, somehow the flower is attributed to our Blackness, or somehow this rose petal is talking about our queerness, because that’s the shit that is pressing, it keeps sitting on our brains. And it’s like, when do we get to that point where that’s not the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning? When do we get to the point when that’s not the first thing you think about me?”
“That’s it right there,” I respond, like I’m in church. “So, can poetry save the world?”
Asia says, wrong question. “I ain’t gonna flex. Like, that whole, like, ‘poetry gon’ save the world’ shit, like, it’s cute, but sometimes the only thing poetry is doing is saving yourself. And that’s the only thing you need … if your work is keeping you going, that’s enough, that’s the world. You have saved yourself. Don’t require more of your work, because what more can it give you if not your own life.”