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Poetry conference turns to boycott

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Brooke Grasso
Editor in Chief

What should have been a weekend of self-expression through slam poetry quickly turned into a boycott of the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational when keynote speaker Mark Smith performed a racist poem to a conference full of diverse millennials.

Four students from the University of La Verne slam poetry team traveled to Chicago to attend the invitational, also known as CUPSI, to share the poetry they have been working on. But when Smith, who is known as “the father of slam poetry,” began describing the struggles he has as a white man, the tone of the event shifted and many students walked out.

“He started talking about how he is always the old white man who is made fun of, but the thing is, he was speaking to an audience that was 90 percent Hispanic, black, queer and trans,” Noel Cabrera, senior public relations major and treasurer for the poetry club, said. “You’re so lucky to be a 70-year-old white man getting called a privileged white man than being a 6-year-old getting called an ‘N’ bomb.”

While spoken word has been around for many years, Smith added to the idea and developed the competitive rules of slam poetry in the 1970s.

After the preliminary and semi-final rounds, Smith was the guest speaker who was supposed to usher the event into its finals rounds.

“I was expecting positive energy and positive vibes, and I was very excited to share our school’s poetry that we’ve written,” freshman economics major Julio Garcia said.

“We experienced that the minute we got to CUPSI. You could really feel the positive frequency with that community.”

But when Smith’s poems included, “Oh, I turn brown too, I turn brown in the summer,” and “It’s all fun and games until you’re at the butt end of the joke,” the students were confused by his intentions and about half of the room of 300 left.

“It felt like there was an intrusion upon our community at CUPSI,” Garcia said. “When Mark Smith went up and did his poem, we all felt attacked. We were there to celebrate our space and celebrate our voice and the unheard voice of marginalized communities.”

Sophomore creative writing major Cheyenne Avila’s poetry usually expresses her identity and experiences as a biracial woman has suffered from depression.

Avila, along with the rest of La Verne’s team, walked out of Smith’s poem, rushed back in and turned their backs to the stage.

“It felt like one of the first, maybe only time, that I’ve been able to assert my presence over someone who has more privilege and more respect than I have,” Avila said.

Smith patronized the students who had their backs turned to him, asking if they were done. But Avila yelled back asking if he was done with his prejudiced poem. Smith left the stage and the host tried to move the convention along.

Because many students were angry, one of the coordinators suggested they debrief. They were guided through deep breathing exercises to help them calm down and readjust.

The ultimate decision by coordinators was to allow the final teams to showcase their poetry in a non-competitive space so that a ranking system would not be assigned to trauma, experiences or struggles.

“Everyone there that is on the final stage and competing is there because they’re writing about their cultural struggle, their trauma and the things they’ve gone through,” Cabrera said. “And that was supposed to be a safe space.”

Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem” prompted a dance party for the teams and was the perfect send off, Cabrera said.

“It’s not about the competition, it’s about sharing art and sharing narrative,” Avila said.

Brooke Grasso can be reached at brooke.grasso@laverne.edu.

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