The Weight of Words

I wasn’t thinking about slam poetry when I applied to the spring 2017 session of the Champlain Young Writers Conference.

I was only thinking about a weekend of book recommendations, writing critiques, and classes full of useful tips for my short stories. If I got in, I’d be spending my days surrounded by hundreds of kids my age who loved words just as much as I did. A weekend with kids who wanted to be there, who wanted to spend all day analyzing books and writing. It sounded a world away from the people in my English class, who groaned every time we started reading a new book.

When I clicked "submit" on my application, I wasn’t thinking about slam poetry. Not at all.

I wasn’t thinking about poetry when I got my acceptance email, either. I was too busy dancing around the kitchen with my sister — who’d also been accepted — and dreaming of how great the weekend was going to be. Skimming over the schedule, I noticed “slam poetry session” listed as one activity, but quickly dismissed it.

I knew about poetry readings from my English class: 20 high schoolers sweating under fluorescent lights as they recited poorly memorized Robert Frost poems in monotone because they were either too bored or too self-conscious to put in much effort. Having to sit through one was annoying at best, excruciating at worst. I normally liked poetry, but I hated listening to it. What was the point, when there was no heart behind the words? Why listen when you could read the same poem and feel all the emotions yourself?

When I arrived at the conference, it was everything I’d been hoping for. It was filled with like-minded high schoolers all working on their next novel or poetry collection and willing to talk about it. I co-wrote a short story with my workshop, had an enthusiastic conversation about my favorite superhero novels, and attended a class about temporary art that ended in drawing weird sketches on sticky notes and putting them all over the building.

Also, the cafeteria let you have free ice cream for breakfast. It was pretty much my idea of heaven.

When the evening of the poetry slam arrived, I filed into the auditorium with everyone else and found a seat next to my sister with a good view of the stage. The college students who ran the workshops announced the beginning of the poetry slam to cheers and whistles of other people who were a lot more excited than I was. Then again, none of them had to suffer through three performances in a row of “The Road Not Taken” in their sophomore English class, so bland that the most interesting part had been someone mixing up the lines and swearing in front of the whole class.

One of the college students explained the rules of the slam: anyone could walk up and recite their original poetry. Then, three judges would give them scores between 1 and 10, and the poet with the highest score at the end would win.

As the first poet stepped up to the microphone, I settled into my seat and resigned myself to enduring an hour of emotionless voices and teenage angst disguised as metaphors. The poet flipped a few pages in her notebook, cleared her throat, and began.

It was nothing like I expected. It wasn’t emo or melodramatic. There were no ridiculous, flowery metaphors that made me roll my eyes. It was a short, intense poem about how she hadn’t always gotten along with her older sister but missed her now that she was away at college.

As she read, the auditorium was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. When she finished, the last words drifting out over the audience, the applause was deafening. I sat back thinking Wow. Somehow, over the last few years, high school had managed to make poetry boring and flat to me. The raw emotion and powerful words of the performance had ripped that illusion away from me. I started to remember why I’d liked poetry in the first place: the way you could use all those line breaks and twisty metaphors and unexpected word choices to tell a story in a different way than it was normally told.

The next poet stepped up, and it began again.

People stood in front of hundreds of strangers, reciting from their notebooks or straight from their memory. They performed funny poems about squishing clay between their fingers, or a night out with their friends. They performed heartfelt poems about how much they loved their parents, and brave poems about their constant battle with mental illness. They performed angry poems about being misgendered, or about the ex that cheated on them. As they spoke, they cried, they laughed, and they raged.

The poets poured out their hearts to the audience, and we were there, waiting to collect their words and hold onto them tightly. When one performance concluded, I’d think to myself that the next one couldn’t possibly be as good. Then the next poet would step up, clutching a few wrinkled pages scrawled in pen, and I’d be proven wrong.

The poetry readings I’d seen at my high school were dry and dull, done by people who had no interest in the words they read. But these performances, done in front of strangers who were all going separate ways the next day: these performances had heart. They had guts. They had tears, and laughter, and everything in between.

I’d read poetry before then, but it wasn’t until that moment that I really understood why people performed it. Hearing the emotion and heart behind the performances made the words more real, somehow. They showed you that poetry wasn’t just weird line breaks and repetition; it was the best way to express yourself when plain words couldn’t do it. Poetry told a story differently than a novel, but it could still tell a story all the same.

I walked out of that auditorium at the end of the evening in a daze, feeling like I’d dunked my head in another universe. Throughout the rest of the conference, even when I was packing up my bags and heading home, I was still thinking about the poetry slam.

The words were in my head, and in my heart. Poetry had finally gotten under my skin.

My fondness for poetry had been trickling out of my life for the last few years, replaced by math tests and English essays. But after the slam, I felt reinvigorated, my love for poetry revived. When deciding what classes to take next year, I made sure to put to put down "Creative Writing: Poetry."

Pie Rasor is a junior in high school from Yarmouth, Maine. She’s been writing for almost as long as she can remember. When not writing, she can be found reading, bike riding, or learning strange facts about history. Her work has also been published by the Telling Room and and her school literary magazine, and has received honorable mentions in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

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