Breathe the Stanzas: The Slam Poetry of Women of Color
Poetry as a digital experience is how I first discovered verse. I went through the endless bank of videos on Button Poetry’s Youtube channel, each track three minutes after the next. Listening to teenagers recite slam poetry with passionate expressions and colorful gestures while articulating deep reflections on race, immigration and femininity made me want to immerse myself in their world. The words of young slam poets such as Sarah Kay, Melissa Lozada-Oliva and Elizabeth Acevedo resonated with me as they spoke fondly about their lives. The subjects of their poetry ranged from first loves to depressive disorders, from friendship to the power of names; these poets made me snap my fingers when I first heard their words.
Sarah Kay’s poem, The type, begins like this: “If you grow older the type of woman men want to look at / You can let them look at you.” / But don’t confuse eyes with hands, windows or mirrors / Let them see what a woman looks like. / They may have never seen one before.
Breathe. She continues, “If you grow up the type of woman men want to touch / You can let them touch you. / Sometimes it’s not you they’re looking for. / Sometimes it’s a bottle, a door, a sandwich, a Pulitzer – another woman. / But their hands found you first. / Don’t take yourself for a guardian or a muse or a promise or a victim or a snack / You are a woman – skin and bones, veins and nerves, hair and sweat / You are not made of metaphors, not of apologies, not apologies. “
I returned to Kay’s words, spoken with sweetness and sweet melancholy, after breakups and frustrations and filled with a desire to be more than I was or could be. The poetry, even listened to in the darkness of my bedroom with only my shadow reflected against the walls by the light from my laptop, was always a comfort. Although I have never been successful as an amateur slammer, the nuances possible in poetry – especially poetry written, performed and given as gifts by other women of color – have left a lasting impact on my outlook. the literary world.
I am constantly in awe of women of color who write raw, heart-wrenching and ultimately beautiful poems about their lived experiences; on the occupation of spaces which do not correspond to us and which were never built for us. The desire for whiteness, for its ease and calming, is a sentiment experienced by people of color at one point in our lives and which I continue to struggle with as an immigrant of color, especially since arriving at Oxford. Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s poem “Yosra Strings Off My Mustache” describes this internal struggle:
“We’ve done everything that cared for them / All of our lives / Because our mothers taught us to bring cleaning supplies / Because we learned to forgive every space we walk in / Because Yosra keeps a roll of string in her purse with her. times.”
Breathe. We continue: “For emergencies / And the urgency this time is that I’m going to see a white boy / The urgency is that I want him to love me / And my mustache looks like the subtitles of ‘a foreign movie with an actress I’ I’ll never look like / Or a ticker for money I’ll never have. / Maybe someday I’ll be cool / Like white girls / Those who do not shave for political reasons.
The emotional work contained in the bodies of women of color is illuminated by poetry, allowing us to navigate colonial spaces and attitudes beyond our control. By situating poetry as an intersectional act, it is another possibility for women of color to delve into themselves through new mediums. Slam poetry in particular is a powerful tool for advocacy and self-protection. The autonomy to decide on accent, pauses and silences in the performance is exemplified by the works of Afro-Latin poet Elizabeth Acevedo, such as her poem “Unforgettable”, co-written and co-performed by Pages Matam and G. Yamazawa:
“I always wanted a name that set the bar high / That came out of my mouth / Somersaulted a room and sliced through the air / A name like Xochi or Anacaona / But even though I had to knock inside the placenta / My parents decided on something placid / Elizabeth.
Breathe. In unison, “A name for princesses, pampered women and perfume. / A name full of grace / A name easily washed down with milk / […] / I wanted a name of Dominican hills soaring and campesino uplift / Instead of ‘Long live the queen’ / But I shortened my name to Liz / so the colonizers had less to hang on.
Poetry provides opportunities for collective breaths and sighs, something often lost in our high-speed academic environments. It is through Button Poetry and other accessible digital platforms that these emerging poets have come to publish their full-fledged anthologies and novels, such as Kay’s 2014 Poetry Collection. No matter the wreck, the successful novels of Acevedo With fire up (2019), The poet X (2020) and Applaud when you land (2020) and the next verse novel by Lozada-Oliva Dreaming of you (2021). I don’t associate poetry with constraints or its traditional white canon; for me, poetry is a totally liberating experience.
I’m sure I’ll write a poem about my time in Oxford, whether it’s how I feel removed from the East Asian diaspora every time I enter a higher education institution; to feel an immense gratitude to be in this city and a simultaneous unease with regard to its stories; to want to be taught and interact with more color faculties; or just wanting the academy to be better and knowing that this is an inherently damaged space. Regardless of the space that separates them, I take comfort in knowing that poetry in all its messy and emotional forms is waiting for me somewhere.
Recommended authors and works:
Peluda (2017) – Melissa Lozada-Oliva
Party Life (2019) – Olivia Gatwood
All Our Wild Wonder (2018) – Sarah Kay, illustrated by Sophia Janowitz
Teaching My Mother to Childbirth (2011) – Warsan Shire
Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) – Claudia Rankine
salt. (2013) – nayyirah wahid
 Poetry button, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/c/ButtonPoetry
 Sarah Kay, “The Guy,” Poetry button (Youtube), January 30, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYAiYMlOCI4
 Melissa Lozada-Oliva, “Yosra takes off my mustache”, Poetry button (Youtube), August 24, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcOiiJEqoKw
 Pages Matam, Elizabeth Acevedo & G. Yamazawa, “Unforgettable” Poetry button (Youtube), September 5, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xvah3E1fP20&t=62s
 Sarah Kay, No matter what the wreckage is, (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014); Elizabeth Acevedo, With fire on high, (Quill Tree Books, 2019); Elizabeth Acevedo, The poet X (Harper Collins, 2020); Elizabeth Acevedo, Applaud when you land (Quill Tree Books, 2020); Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Dreaming of you: a novel in verse (Astra House, 2021)
Illustration by Mia Clément.