Slam poetry has become an increasingly popular mode of self-expression. Naively, I thought slam poetry was just poets talking and reading to other poets in smoke-filled rooms with dim lights. I discretely visited a local New Orleans center for slam performance artists and was blown away. I began to take a deeper look into performance poetry; especially after my interview with spoken word poet EJ Antonio, I became even more curious about the art. I still had questions I wanted to ask and in order to achieve greater perspective on this culturally vibrant art form, I asked an established slam poet. This curiosity led me to interview Perre Shelton, a performance artist, the youngest ever to be featured on Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam in 2005. I learned a bit more about slam poetry from his responses about his background and experience with slam poetry as a performance art.
When did you first become involved with poetry?
I began ‘slamming’ in 2003 when I was fifteen years old. Initially I was a little rapper, influenced by my uncles and my sister who are all brilliant lyricists. My first wrap was ‘unbelievable’—and it was horrific. However, I kept at it, but found it difficult to maintain a uniform rhythm. This is what I believed rap to be. I participated in talent show in my friend’s back yard in the summer of 2003 where I read my first ‘rap’ which broke what I considered the ‘rules’ of rap at the time. This was labeled poetry, and so that is how I began to identify myself. By chance, in the following academic term Fall 2003 my high school T.F. North High School was beginning a poetry slam team under the initial guidance of former student Nikki Patin who was already regarded as a poetic mastermind in the Chicago community.
I walked into the ‘audition’ with my rap/poetry surrounded in other who presented haikus, sestinas, ballads and such feeling a bit out of place. I was picked as an alternate. One of the girls who was on the main team had to drop out so I had my chance. We performed in Young Chicago Authors (YCA) Youth Poetry Slam “Louder than a Bomb” (LTAB) and lost pretty bad. The strict forms and disciplines didn’t do well (and still don’t) in Slams. BUT YCA was putting together an alternative team in addition to the winning team to send to Nationals. It would be the All-Star team. They picked me as an one of the All-Stars to represent YCA in nationals. So began an exciting career in performance poetry. YCA was connected to some of the most well-recognized poets in Chicago and in the country and so with them as my mentors I gained access to many venues not otherwise frequented by youth—I guess they saw something in me. Once my mentor “avery r young” told me to go to a poetry slam sponsored by C.C. Carter—the Windy City Black Pride Poetry Slam 2005 (I was fifteen at the time).
They checked the rule book to make sure I could compete. I was greeted as the little boy and the baby of the bunch, cheek pinching and patronizing—by the other adult performers. I beat them all. I found myself on the front page of Chicago FreePress the next morning. I performed on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam in 2005 which extended my career in performance poetry quite a bit.
What does slam poetry mean to you and where do you see its influence going?
I would say that Slam poetry saved or changed my life. I had my very first chance to speak and be heard. I had a voice amongst a people who were socioeconomically voiceless. It was the only time I could tell the truth—my truth and not be punished for it. I have never felt so free before —or since— than when I performed on the stages of LTAB. I think slam poetry should be a staple in minority communities. Children have the freedom to be angry and say so without condemnation. And they actually have legitimate reasons to be angry. Slam Poetry for a minority teenager is like shaking a can of pop for hours and finally opening it. It’s going to explode. It’s going to be messy, maybe violent but valid and the mess that is made, where it could on the one hand be perceived as a stain, can be called art.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I am inspired very much by what I read. I read a lot of James Baldwin and Oyeronke Oyewumi. I believe that good writers should not walk around with notepads; they should walk around with books. Good writers read much more than they write, they listen much more than they speak, and they feel much more than they express. But at the root of any good writer are good people. Avery r young always said to me there is no such thing as a good writer, dancer, etc. there is only such a thing as good people who usually tend to do things well. My work is largely inspired by little things. Like the look in someone’s eyes or a piece of paper on the ground or an advertisement for some corporation that initially read “Suites are people too,” it was on the train. But the word ‘suites’ was scratched out and was replaced with the word ‘gays.’ Things like that make me want to write. Or stories that I hear children tell. The little things otherwise looked over y the general public.
Do you see slam poetry as a ‘performance art’ only and not an emphasis on written poetic works? Would either coincide? Or is slam poetry an extension of written poetic works?
Sometimes performance poetry can be difficult to promote but it gained a lot of popularity with HBO and other supporters of the craft. There are three popular types of poetry pieces and also poets: page pieces, stage pieces, and hybrid. Some works require the page because every enjambment, line break, punctuation etc highlights the voice of the writer. It is the page equivalent to the stage writer inflection, pauses, intonation etc. Writer like Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti, and “avery r young” are able to capture the essence of both in either medium. Slam is a gimmick to get people to listen. A beneficial one, but a gimmick nonetheless.
Do you consider yourself to be a performance artist? Do you consider yourself to be a ‘slam artist?’
I am an artist, period. More specifically I am a performance writer. I don’t necessarily consider myself a slam artist. A slam is a competition using poetry or other elements of the creative arts to generate the highest score. That is the design and nature of a slam. A slam artist would be someone who is skilled in his/her ability to generate high scores from strangers (in some circles we call those brown-nosers or ass-kissers). There are some that are considered “slam artists.” I am just not one of them.
Should Chicago be considered the birthplace of slam poetry and do you find it difficult to promote poetry as a performance art form?
Slam began in Chicago as a means by which to bring more attention to poetry. That’s it. It does not actually measure the value of someone’s words and life experiences. There is a certain focus and concentration involved with performance poetry. It is remembering why you write the poem in the first place in order to capture the essence in each delivery. Keep these images fresh to keep the poem fresh, at least for me, I am a very visual person. Some require more practice than others but it does take extreme amounts of commitment. The biggest commitment is not entirely to the poem but more to the way your life is changed after you write it. It is a commitment to your own denouement—so to speak. I pray performance poetry sticks around forever. I don’t really see how one can get rid of it. For as long as there is language there will be performance poetry. Slam poetry. I dig it. I want it available for the young people as well because for some reason, young folks love competition. They are inspired by it. Competing with rhetoric and as a teacher I think that is a brilliant concept.
You have been featured on Russell Simmons Def Comedy Jam, what was the experience like? How did the opportunity come about?
I was told by my mentor, “avery r young” to come to a filming for some new show. I didn’t have cable and in bed anyway by the time the show came on so for me it was new. Anyway, I went. The filming was just a local YCA member recording local talent and sending it as a bundle to the producers of the show. I thought nothing of it until I got a call from one of the production managers inviting me to the show. I arrived in New York City, not for the first time, but for the first time without my mom and as an invited artist. I almost fell over when they told me what they were paying! Relatively a lot of money for a 17 year old boy. To add to that I almost fell out of my chair when they gave me a per-diem (I didn’t know what the hell a “per-diem” was!) Then I was back stage having whole discussion with Russell Simmons, Smokey Robinson, Rev Run form RUN DMC amongst others. I wasn’t star-struck though. Somehow they were just people to me. It was a wonderful experience. One I will always remember.
You performed “Dandelion” it would seem that the piece still resonates with anyone who has the opportunity to listen–why do you believe this is so?
About Dandelions—everyone has a relationship to some form of motherhood. Period. Even if one does not understand the specificity of the story, they understand the emotional undertones.
Did you ever feel that you were not able to perform?
The only time I feel like I am unable to perform is when I genuinely don’t feel any value in what I have to say. My desire to step on stage is not out of self-admiration it is out of a desire to show, or prove, or demonstrate something, not always didactic, but always motivated by more than ‘the self’ or what some call the ego. Though the self is always active in its ability to relate to the stories being told, it can never be the sole motivation for one’s desire to speak and perform. Speaking is a method by which [we] communicate. If you’ve nothing to say, why speak?
Are you concerned that Slam Poetry is in danger of being too commercialized and only becoming popular for capitalist ‘public entertainment’ value rather than appreciated for its artistic quality?
Though I could take this on a valid concern, I am no more afraid of the commercialization of slam poetry than I am afraid for that of music or film or theater. The reality of the capitalist nation we live in is that the expansion of any commodity into mass production will result in some adulterations of the original idea. Let it be said that this is less a critique of slam poetry and more a critique of the social fabric that begins to imply itself within slam culture. I guess the long and short of it is that slam poetry will serve the social purpose it is intended to serve as our society changes. Slam poetry is not now nor has it ever been just one thing. Furthermore, the truth is that the concept of Slam poetry began out of a sense of commercialization. The scores were added to the presentation of poetry in order to draw a larger audience. Combined with other social influences it became an outlet for many who would not have otherwise known the power of their own voice.
So is it (performance poetry) to be used as an alternative form for artist self promotion?
As far as people using the art form as a means by which to gratify their own voice: I find this fascinating. Not a bastardization of the art but simply a product of the art. The larger question is: what is going on in our society that we have so many people who consider themselves voiceless thus needing a ‘gimmick’ like slam poetry to attain some sort of value and agency. Slam poetry being used as a platform for the gratification of ones voice, to me, is a step in the RIGHT direction, because in order to gratify one’s own voice one must first acknowledge that one has a voice. To then find value in one’s voice–so much so that one is gratified is not always arrogance; sometimes this is the attainment of power. That is the power of identity, agency, and confidence therein. This is really the natural process of any art-form -rather we choose to acknowledge it or not– most of us are initially attracted to an art-form because it feels good–to us. It is not until later that we develop the art as a platform by which to speak in the support of others. Notice: many nascent slam artists write poems about their own struggle. Later in their careers most —not all— use slam poetry to tell the stories of others. To gratify ones voice is to empower ones voice. Maturity inside the art will happen.
Do you think that Slam Poetry is forcing traditional pen and paper poets out into the mainstream?
I think that Slam poetry and page poetry are not feuding as some would suggest they are. Many page artists would be foreign to me had it not been for my introduction to slam poetry. This is because I had a well-read set of mentors to guide me to such literature which began to impact my writing. One of the critiques of slam poetry that I do have is that it puts so much emphasis on being unique that it sometimes produces a sort of literary and cultural autonomy amongst individuals to the extent that 1) slam artists are not acknowledging how much they have been influenced by the work of others and 2) slam artists who acknowledge their influences are not passing this information to following generations of slam artists. However, in general this will tend to correct itself as we as artist grow and develop as a collective.
Have you ever been published? Where else can we find your work?
My ambitions led me to a set of mentors from my community including “avery r young” and C.C. Carter. They helped me with lessons of diplomacy and discretion during my time of adolescent activism. Their commitment to my journey has often presented platforms on which I could stand and be heard, and also experience a sense of empowerment. This teenage activism along with strict mentorship has afforded me the privilege to be broadcast nationally on HBO and PBS and locally on C-A-N TV. I am honored to have my journey as a young activist documented in such locally distributed periodicals as The Chicago Freepress, the Hammond Star, Windy City Times, The Independent, and The Harold, as well as nationally distributed periodicals like The Chicago Tribune. The encouragement and support continued when I was recognized by the Mayor and City Council of Calumet City, where I finished High School, and when I was recognized by The Collin Higgins Foundation for my commitment to human rights, receiving a $10,000 grant to continue my activism and neighborhood contributions. As a blooming scholar, I have had the opportunity to submit some of my work for publication in The Garland Court Literary Review, Seeds Literary Journal, Swaggerzine—An Online Urban Anthology, and POW WOW—Anthology on Women’s Empowerment. Many of my experiences have helped develop my leadership abilities and organizational skills such as being elected President of Harold Washington College’s Creative Writing Organization, and serving as committee chair for Youth Pride Center, which contributes to the personal and social development of Lesbian and Gay youth of African descent in Chicago.
Are you currently in college and what are you majoring in?
At my current institution, Chicago State University (CSU), I am graduating with Departmental Honors from African American Studies, and the W.E.B. Dubois Honors Award. I’ve been able to serve as the first student representative of the Women and Gender Studies Committee, and I am also an active member of H.E.R.O. (Helping to Educate Regarding Orientation and the African-American Studies Student Organization. In the Summer of 2010, I had the opportunity to study in Egypt under the tutelage of Dr. Mario Beatty, Department Chair of African-American Studies at CSU. There, by studying ancient concepts of gender in Africa, I found a history to which I was able to relate. Also, under the mentorship of Dr. Haki R. Madhubuti, activist and writer during the Black Arts Movement, I discovered a cultural esteem to which I had never before been exposed.
Are you still performing and what is next on the horizon for Ra Perre Shelton?
I want to teach and continue to build institutions that empower the youth voice especially in communities of color. Also, I would like to say that I am currently working on a poetry manuscript for publication. Despite my established career on the page, however, I am always open for live performances to reconnect with my ‘slam’ roots. I have also started to dive into music and song. I plan to attend YALE for grad school but I haven’t been accepted yet so these plan may change. Either way, grad school and a PhD is in my future.
More on Ra P. L. Shelton: Ra has been featured in various Chicago land area newspapers, including The Hammond Star and The Chicago FreePress. He has also worked with the Chicago Foundation for Women, POW WOW (a lesbian woman empowerment organization), and has been acknowledged at their 2007 and 2008 “Kings of Poetry,” Youth Pride Center, HERO gay straight alliance, Orion’s Mind after school program, and is a volunteer for Theodore Herzl Elementary School’s “Real Men Read” initiative. Ra is a 2008 recipient of the Collin Higgins Foundation Activist Award where he was acknowledged for using his poetry as an effective means of social upward mobility, and he is currently in partnership with CSU’s Gender and Women Studies Committee hoping to shed light on the social aspects of women and those of alternate gender expression. In addition to his studies and social activism, he is the Founder and CEO of LOVEJOY CATERING AND EVENT PLANNING whose mission is to use the culinary arts as a method by which to feed hearts and minds.
Article first published as Interview: Ra Perre Shelton, Slam Poet on Blogcritics.
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