By Ila Ananya
I’ve always watched women perform poetry with a mixture of amazement and jealousy. When I’m not watching them at poetry slams in person, I seek them out on YouTube. I usually close the door to my room and play every video at full volume, sitting some distance away from my laptop with my fingers knotted. I don’t move because there’s no space for movement in those few minutes, when a woman is standing on stage behind the mic, declaring everything that she wants to the world, and everybody shuts up and listens.
What is moving in every one of the poetry slam videos I’ve watched is how unselfconscious these women seem to be, as though there’s nothing more important in the short span of their performance than for them to bare themselves unapologetically. Poetry slam has no set style, challenging what we consider poetry with literary value, and creating political spaces for people to share their stories. The women I watch are performing about everything — depression, love, race, porn, Cosmopolitan magazine, vocabularies, joy. The strange thing about watching slam poetry is being conscious that it is a performance — these women might be singing, screaming, laughing, sometimes you can see them in tears — and yet you can’t shake off the unsettling feeling of knowing that these poems are also intensely, often devastatingly, real.
When we were in our first year of college, my friend and I performed our first slam poems at a competition in the literature festival on our campus, and I had never been more terrified. My friend was better than I was, quieter, but firmer, slower, and more expressive. When it was my turn, I saw writer Joshua Muyiwa, the judge, sitting in the front row and scribbling notes. I read aloud because I couldn’t remember the words and my legs felt like chalk. Our topic was embarrassment, and I’d written about performing my first slam poem. I failed miserably.
But my own hairy experiments with slam poetry didn’t dull my interest in it as a form. August has been an exciting month for slam poets and audiences alike. First, National Youth Poetry Slam announced that spoken word poet Sarah Kay was coming to Bangalore in September, and there have been celebrations all around ever since. Then, there was the viral video of Vinatoli Yeptho, a law student in Kolkata, performing her slam poem, ‘Five Rules for Whomever it May Concern,’ about her experience as a woman from the North-East. “And if you still do not obey these rules,” she says, “Remember my forefathers were headhunters; I was born out of a clan of warriors. Remember, the world’s hottest chilli is growing in my grandmother’s garden.”
You also probably remember René Sharanya Verma’s performance that ripped into misogynist rappers like Yo Yo Honey Singh at the Delhi Poetry Slam last January. In the background you can hear women hooting and clapping, and sometimes Verma pauses to laugh with them, before launching into the rest of her rap. It’s like she doesn’t care and it’s just too bad if you’re like one of those rappers she mentions, who are concerned about her eating burgers in Lajpatnagar, or not being a kudi namkeen, because she’ll keep performing anyway.
It’s no wonder that Mobika Maring, a 25-year-old spoken word poet from Shillong who recently completed an MA in English, tells me that performance poetry is cathartic, and that every time she performs, she feels like she has the opportunity to be heard. Are there themes that she finds herself returning to in her performances because of what the form does for her? “I think my work always has a diasporic feel to it. It’s something that I unconsciously do. Being a woman, being a Khasi-Manipuri voice in an art form that’s yet to be popular back at home, I constantly feel guilty if I don’t use the space to tell my story,” Maring says.
When I had first tried to perform that slam poem on embarrassment, I recognised, despite doing terribly, what such a form could do for me if I just had the courage to stand in front of an audience and tell them my story. Since then, I’ve only stood in front of my mirror and performed some poems to myself in my room, but I’ve found that writing them is also freeing. Maring says encouragingly that when she began, she would be stressed about trivial things, like what to do with her hands, and if she should be making eye contact with anyone. Does she then practice a lot, to get her performance right? “I memorise my poems just enough so that I don’t end up misquoting myself,” she says, adding, “The shake in your voice, the trembling of your hands, all add to the experience it offers and shouldn’t be compromised for something overly choreographed.”
My favourite videos have women standing in a spotlight on an empty stage and you can’t see the audience, but you can hear them gasping, laughing, clapping, whistling. Other times, their silence is loud, like in this performance by Sara Brickman, where the audience is laughing until Brickman stops them with a single sentence. She doesn’t care what she looks like, or that her bra straps have fallen off her shoulders. When these women have finished, sometimes they smile slightly before they walk away, and other times, they exhale, nod, and leave.
I find it impossible to only listen to poetry slam without looking at the women performing, because it isn’t just about how the words sound together. I love seeing their bright, loud dresses, their red lipstick, the way they stand challengingly with their hands on their hips, or gesticulating wildly. In Watching Women Want, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano writes of watching women soccer players in the 2015 Women’s World Cup, and says that watching them play and want something, “is an exercise in watching desire become a visual, physical force.” That’s how I feel when I watch women performing poetry slam — it’s thrilling to see women write their stories and perform them defiantly through their bodies and their voices, forcing the creation of spaces for themselves.
The Ladies Finger is a leading online feminist magazine.