Natalie Choi ’18 stood on the black stage, a single spotlight illuminating her figure as she recited her two-minute poem at the semi-finals of the 2017 Get Lit Words Ignite Classic Slam in front of a cheering crowd of fellow poetry fans.
Choi’s love for slam began in middle school, when she would watch countless videos of high school students competing at the Get Lit Classic Slam on buttonpoetry.com.
Watching the performances, she immediately felt connected to and inspired by the performance poetry, which she didn’t always experience from reading poetry written on paper. When she found out that there was a slam poetry team at the Upper School, she decided to audition for the team and further pursue her middle school passion.
“It was kind of a spur of the moment decision,” Choi said. “I wrote a poem the night before and I memorized it within maybe a period before the audition. I just kind of went in there and I was super nervous my first time but it was great.”
Slam poetry is a movement that first gained traction in the 1990’s, most popular among poets with less academic styles, according to the Academy of American Poets. Construction worker and poet Marc Smith created the traditional structure of slam competitions, where poets performed their original works either alone or in teams in front of an audience.
Smith started the first weekly poetry competition known as the Uptown Poetry Slam at a Chicago jazz club called The Green Mill. The audience served as the judge, taking into account both performance style and content of the original work to select a winner for the cash prize. However, the true prize was that it provided an outlet for young poets and poets with diverse backgrounds to be heard, creating an empowering community for them.
Now, slam poetry provides a similar space for poets to call out racial, economic and gender injustices plaguing communities everywhere. The small, weekly Chicago jazz club event has now evolved into nationwide slams and festivals.
Every year, the Harvard-Westlake slam poetry team “My Word!” attends the Classic Slam hosted by Get Lit Words Ignite. The Get Lit Classic Slam is the largest youth classic poetry festival in Southern California, where high school students compete with each other and “slam” their repertoires consisting of an iconic poem and their original response poem to it. A panel of artistic judges selects finalists to move on to the next round based on the poet’s performance, audience reactions and sometimes personal taste.
In April, Choi, along with her team, was named a semi-finalist in the competition with her piece, “7 Politically Correct Cat Calls as Told by a Poet.” In her poem, she emphasized the importance of not objectifying women.
Choi said she tries to use a touch of humor to connect with her audience and hopes to teach a valuable lesson about the courtship culture of our society. Because Choi was a semi-finalist, Button Poetry recorded her performance and uploaded it online for others to view.
Choi learned about her video being uploaded from her old teammate Hannah Dains ’16, after receiving a text congratulating her. Upon hearing that her performance had been uploaded to Button, she couldn’t contain her excitement.
“It was crazy to me. I started watching poets on Button and that was how I was inspired to do slam poetry in the first place and now I was up on Button. It’s as if everything had come around full circle.”
So far, her video has garnered close to 50,000 views and over 4,000 likes. Choi admitted that it feels strange to think that so many people she’s never met have watched her perform on the Internet but that it is also rewarding and provides her with a sense of accomplishment.
“It makes me feel like my poem and my poetry have a voice somewhere in the community and that I’ve somehow spoken to a bunch of people that I maybe wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with,” Choi said.
Choi said slam poetry has grown from a middle school interest to a supportive community, in which she feels she can truly express herself. She said it also gives her the opportunity to convey those thoughts and feelings to new people, an experience that sometimes helps her see herself in a new light.
“It gives you a chance to really learn more about yourself,” she said. “Who you are beyond academics and your own friend group.”
Much of her willingness to share her deepest thoughts and put herself in a vulnerable place, she said, comes from the positive and considerate attitude of the slam team and environment.
“It’s the most supportive community that I’ve encountered at Harvard-Westlake so far,” Choi said. “No one is there to watch you fail and everyone is there to share in each others’ successes and to support people in their failures.”
For Choi, performance poetry has also impacted the way that she writes by making her written voice stronger. Because she sees most of her written work ultimately turned into staged pieces, she now channels more emotion into the writing process. According to Choi, she likes to write her poems the way she envisions them being performed.
Choi said she highly encourages students to find out more about slam poetry and even audition for the team at Harvard-Westlake. Drawing from her own experiences over the last three years, she said she believes that participating in slam poetry would be a valuable addition to time at the school.
“I could not recommend it more,” Choi said. “It’s the coolest experience to be able to share what you’ve written with other people and also to meet new people.”