CalSLAM brings down barriers with original material

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At UC Berkeley, the terms “free speech,” “equality” and “expression” are seemingly ubiquitous ideals in light of the campus and city’s history. In the spirit of the Free Speech Movement of 1964, the campus environment integrates its legacy into everyday life. The symbols are everywhere, from the the Free Speech Movement Cafe to the Mario Savio Steps.

But for a core group of students on the UC Berkeley campus, the legacy of free speech at Berkeley is achieved through poetry. For them, poetry is an art, a sport and a personal outlet all in one. It’s a way to let their creative juices flow. Writing poems on a variety of subjects, titles range from serious and political topics like “Samson,” “Cathedral,” “Oakland,” to more humorous ones, such as “Bird brain.”

These students are members of CalSLAM, UC Berkeley’s spoken word and slam poetry organization. Founded in 2001, the group strives to provide a space for students to express themselves creatively while embracing differences. Unlike most student groups at Berkeley, CalSLAM’s influence isn’t confined by the borders of campus; open to the public, CalSLAM’s membership ranges from students to community members alike.

“Poetry slams were invented in 1985 in a Chicago bar by a construction worker named Mark Smith,” explains second-year history and Near Eastern studies student Kelsey Waxman. “The goal is to make poetry a more realistic and applicable form of art. You want to tell a story.”  There are also strict rules governing the content of the poems to be presented — everything must be original material.  Fourth-year ethnic studies student Jade Cho clarifies, “You cannot slam a poem that isn’t your own.”

In preparation for presenting poems at slam events, CalSLAM hosts weekly workshops to help members develop their writing skills. “They’re a space for writers that are more experienced as well as people who have never written before to come together,” says fourth-year political economy student and CalSLAM workshop coordinator Noor Al-Samarrai. 

For CalSLAM, however, poetry extends far beyond the classroom. In addition to providing services and opportunities for the Berkeley community, CalSLAM also includes a more competitive element, establishing itself on the national level with the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. “There’s a slam season, just like in any other sport,” says Al-Samarrai. As an intercollegiate competition, CalSLAM sends a team of five students to compete in a pool representing approximately 60 schools from across the country. This year, the competitive team earned the award for funniest poem for their delivery of “Oral Sex and Cheese” by members Victoria Massie and Brandon Melendez.

Beyond the competition, CalSLAM members find that their poetry can also serve a therapeutic purpose. “Spoken word is also a major tool for empowerment,” Cho reflects. “Slam poetry has changed my life. I was really shy, but it’s given me mentorship and shown me how to present myself. I also think that slams are really powerful, because it’s the only place I’ve ever seen a young black male from East Oakland come together with a young white girl from Pacifica and share their experiences with racism and sexual assault … People share their stories and have a dialogue that might never happen anywhere else in society. It’s beautiful, really.”

CalSLAM is about more than words simply written on a piece of paper. It’s about fostering an environment for people to listen to one another, share their talents and express creativity. 

“The most important thing for me is seeing people able to speak,” says Cho. “With all the different things we have going on in our lives, people tend to be silenced.” It’s clear that CalSLAM is much more than just a poetry enthusiasts collective — it is a group of students striving to empower themselves, the campus and the Berkeley community.

CalSLAM will be hosting its final open mic night of the academic year May 2 at 7:30 p.m. 

Contact Nick Cotter at [email protected].