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No Experience Necessary

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“Mastering poems
Takes a long time, at least more
Than a couple days”
— A haiku by me

The life of a poet seems significantly more romantic than that of an EECS major or a blog writer. But being a poet is more than just turtlenecks and cool glasses — you have to be a master wordsmith and have the rhythm and confidence to deliver a performance. Cal Slam’s open mic nights offered a perfect opportunity for me to test my poetic chops in the Berkeley slam poetry scene, and the theme for the event was womxns’ health. After a few hours of unproductive scribbling, I realized I had no idea where to start, especially with my given topic. So I spoke with Elise Dimick, a slam poetry veteran, for some tips on writing a respectable poem.

Ryan Melvin: How long have you been writing poetry and how long have you been doing slam poetry?

Elise Dimick: I think I’ve been writing my whole life, but I didn’t start getting interested in slam poetry until I was probably a junior in high school, and I didn’t perform until I was a senior.

RM: What separates slam poetry from regular poetry?

ED: Slam poetry needs a performance in order to get the full effect and full emotion. You have to witness it. There’s a lot that goes into it — tone, facial expression and the cadence of how things are said really play into how you experience the poem.

RM: I’ve never written a poem that wasn’t an assignment for school, so what are some of your first steps when you’re writing a poem that you’re planning on performing?

ED: The first step is to remove yourself from the idea that it has to be something you perform. You just have to write immediately from the heart, and whatever comes out, comes out. Have an idea that you’re inspired by to start. If a poem is too general and universal then it’s harder for people to relate to.

RM: Okay, so I have to get a little bit intimate and specific with it.

ED: Yeah, the point of poetry, I think, is to make a particular experience that you have relate to a bigger whole.

RM: What’s the general environment of a slam poetry open mic like?

ED: It’s a very open-minded environment and they’re very supportive. I’ve never been to an open mic event where they don’t show a lot of love to everyone. Just expect that it’s going to be super supportive and it’s not at all competitive.

RM: That makes me feel so much better about what I’m about to do. This is my last question — snaps or claps?

ED: It’s snaps during the poem. If you’re really feeling something, they really encourage you to show it in some way. Snaps are the most polite way because you’re not interrupting the poet, but sometimes, if something really hits home, you can shout or yell or moan or do anything. A lot of times at the end of a poem people will snap and clap and everything.

RM: I hope I get some moans, that’d be cool.

ED: Yeah, you’ve just got to keep it real.

Keeping it real is a lot easier said than done when it comes to poetry, but I finally landed on a topic for my piece — my first trip to Planned Parenthood where I got scammed out of 20 dollars by a woman in the waiting room. Only after my conversation with Elise did I realize that I forgot to ask if it had to rhyme, so I played it safe and made it kind of rhyme. It took me another few hours to complete, but at least I had a finished product.

The venue was as dimly lit as I expected it to be, and I entered with a couple preliminary snaps that seemed well-received. On the sign-up list, the first question was “Do you identify as a womxn?” At the time I signed up, I was the only person who answered no, and I already felt uncomfortable about even being there. However, most of my discomfort subsided when, as Elise mentioned, the room filled with snaps and claps for each performance. When it was finally my turn, it felt like I had read my poem and walked away in the blink of an eye.

I got some snaps and some scattered claps, but no moans. And for good reason, because compared to everyone else’s stirring and well-rehearsed poems, mine sounded like a poorly written children’s book. I even caught myself laughing at one of my worst lines in which I refer to Planned Parenthood as “double p” to get an end rhyme. Regardless, the room supported my shitty rhymes and snapped me all the way back to my seat, and you don’t have to be good at poetry to enjoy being the subject of snapping.

Ryan does the hardest things at UC Berkeley and writes about them. Contact Ryan Melvin at [email protected].

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