A few weeks ago, WORD!, a slam poetry group founded to provide an open forum for oppressed voices, invited the 2014 Youth Poet Laureate Ramya Ramana to come to Brown. What ensued was a series of amazing performances by Brown students, followed by Ramya performing a few of her poems. Ramya, 18, is the winner of the New York Knicks Poetry Slam, a student at St. John’s University, and an activist for equality. She has been traveling the five boroughs of New York to engage with her peers and emphasize the importance of civic engagement. She is an extremely accomplished, yet humble person who not only moved the crowd with her work, but was also moved by the poems of Brown students. Basically, she’s awesome. The performances were enlightening to say the least. Here are the five things I learned from WORD! and Ramya:
1. Nothing is off limits. The poets explored a vast range of topics in their performances. The ten female Brown poets discussed deeply personal issues, societal problems, and comedic situations. Poems about the destruction of one’s hometown in a foreign land were followed by poems of tantalizing love. A performance about the oppression of women in Indian society was followed by a tragicomic poem about regret. Poems of racism were followed by poems describing the vulnerability fostered by living in oppressive environments. The depth and breadth of topics covered was refreshing. It gave every audience member a lot to ponder as they wandered off to their Friday evenings.
2. Don’t be nice. Before each performance, poets would stand center stage, taking in one last breath before sharing their thoughts with a crowd full of strangers. Before they would start, audience members and fellow WORD! poets would yell “Don’t be nice!” This event was truly a safe space in which individuals were encouraged to ruthlessly analyze, criticize, and engage with their topic of choice. They shouldn’t let the fear of insulting or offending others stop them from truly expressing themselves. The sentiment behind these words was not controversial, but genuine. As long as poets spoke from their hearts, their messages would be well-received. It was a call to be honest. It is this honesty that made the poems so powerful. I learned that open communication does wonders for conveying a difficult message and for hopefully creating progress.
3. Perseverance is key. Ramya performed five poems at the end of the event. Through her poems, the audience got to know her in a rather intimate way. She told us of her struggles with racism in a predominantly white neighborhood, the attempted suicide of a loved one, and of the challenges women face growing up. All of these experiences, though they at times made her vulnerable, ultimately made her a stronger person. Her wisdom rang through the classroom as she opened up her heart to people she had just met. When times are tough, stick it out. Time heals all wounds. And if time isn’t moving fast enough, you’ll always find a friend, even if it is in the most unlikely person. In her poem, “Miss America,” Ramya encourages 2014 Miss America Nina Davuluri, an Indian-American woman, to combat racism with grace; to persevere against those who write her off as not being “truly” American. Ramya actually performed this poem for Nina, directly giving her the message:
4. Snapping, clapping, banging on tables — it’s all chill. A poet is slamming the way pharmaceuticals have taken over our society and you happen to whole-heartedly agree. Make noise! Clap, snap, bang on a table, maybe even moan in agreement — they are all the currency of support. The poets would thrive off the energy of the audience. With every sign of agreement, the poets’ voices would grow stronger, their confidence would swell, their performance would be that much better. Our peers are doing great things everywhere you look on campus. Throw them some love every once in a while.
5. Don’t be afraid to try slam poetry. Some of the poets were performing pieces for the first time. They did not know what the reaction would be. They did not know if they were fully satisfied with their work. Some stumbled over a line or two. But they tried. They let go of their work and flung it into the public sphere, awaiting the interpretations of over 30 people. You won’t always be ready to perform your work, turn in your essay, or have that conversation that has been hanging over your head. All you can do is just try. You don’t know which way it will go, but you just have to have faith that everything will work itself out.
WORD! organized an amazing event full of excellent performances. Ramya is truly an inspiring individual. We were fortunate enough to have her come and perform. Make sure to keep her and WORD! on your radar as they continue spreading the word.