“I was initially intimidated by slam,” says Kimbi Mullins, also known as Kimbi the Goddess. With a stage name like that — not to mention her magnetic stage presence — it’s hard to picture the Greenville, S.C., poet as anything but confident. “What it did,” she continues, “was bring out a fire in me and my writing through the true spirit of a poetry slam. This is the same advice I give to others who may fear it or be against it for whatever reasons: It allows you to tap into that fire within.” Mullins will encourage young poets to tap into that same creative energy at the Asheville Wordslam, a night of slam poetry hosted by local nonprofit, Asheville Writers in the Schools.
The Asheville Wordslam will take place at the Wesley Grant Center on Friday, April 25, 6-9 p.m., for middle school students and Saturday, April 26, 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., for high school students. Eight middle school teams and 10 high school teams will compete, with a maximum of four members per team, plus an alternate. The teens will face off for a trophy and the title, but both Mullins and Janet Hurley, director of Asheville Writers in the Schools, agree that the slam is about way more than prizes.
Hurley compares the poetry slam format to a parody on sports teams. While the points are downplayed by the emcee and judges, and the focus remains on performances and supporting fellow poets, Hurley can’t deny that the competition and the camaraderie inherent in the slam helps to draw in students and would-be poets who might not otherwise be attracted to writing.
And in essence, says Hurley, that’s exactly why the poetry slam is so closely aligned with the nonprofit’s goals. “Our mission is to connect creative writers with students, teachers, families and community members through innovative writing programs in order to build literacy skills and to help to build really healthy imaginations,” she says. “I think for any writer there is that process of sitting down and writing, which is a very solitary pursuit, but then there’s that need for creative communities. There’s that need for somebody else listening and then celebrating your words. That is just so affirming.” There will also be an open mic for students who wish to share their poetry but don’t want to compete.
During the competition, the young poets will present their best poem onstage, awaiting snapping fingers and cries of approval from audiences. In past Wordslams, Hurley says she’s heard poetry on topics ranging from domestic violence to mental illness to the joys of teen life. “We’ve had many poems about different forms of oppression, so one might say that they can be a little more in the political realm,” she says. “Most of the poems are written from a very personal point of view, so they explore issues like racism or sexism, or gun violence, that type of thing, that are political in many ways but offer personal experiences.” Not all topics are heavy, she adds. Hurley has heard younger students explore their love/hate relationship with math. Another middle school student wrote a beautiful poem about watching his cat.
No matter what the subject matter, getting up onstage and sharing verse can be an empowering — but often terrifying — act. “They’re really taking huge risks,” Hurley says of the teens. “They’re not only risking their creative impulses, how they put words together, but often they’re sharing very deeply held values, or sharing about experiences that have been really challenging. Particularly at the high school level, more often than not, we see that poetry tends to be raising a lot of issues into this place of awareness, to say, ‘Hey, these things are important, and even though I’m young, I know this already.’”
“These kids have their own voices, their own stories to share,” says Mullins. “And it is so healthy — mentally, spiritually and psychologically — for the young ones to get their stories out. … Once their story [or] message is out, and if only one person ‘gets it’ and understands, that equals success. That’s a reminder of our greater purpose on this planet. Your voice matters, you matter and you are not alone.”