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Lit with Lindsay: Living poetry

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APRIL 16, 2015

Cars zipped by, headlights burning trails in the dark, as I walked with a workshop leader from CalSLAM along Bancroft Way, from the basement of Barrows Hall to Caffe Strada.

At that moment, I desperately wished that I, too, were driving somewhere far away, as I tried to think of some way to tell her that, though I had introduced myself as a reporter, I actually had no idea what my article was going to be about.

Something about poetry, I explained. Maybe slam poetry. Is it okay if we don’t call this an interview?

Earlier that week, possessed by the same force of curiosity as that which spurred the now-infamous Vice reporter to spend an entire week eating nothing but Nutella, I decided to go to every poetry event on campus for a week starting April 4 — the plan was to spend a period of time immersed in poetry and, at the end, to pull together an article about some truth I had learned from the experience.

And that’s how I found myself getting coffee with a correspondent from CalSLAM, feeling each word shared between the two of us like small needlepoints of contact.

I’ve always been anxious about meeting people, so on our way to the coffee shop, I tried to hide my sweaty palms and hoped to God that the words coming out of my mouth were doing something to build some sort of bridge between us, wishing that they could float weightlessly in the space separating us and magically solidify into some real connection.

Days later, at the end of the week, as I sat on a couch in the Multicultural Center and listened to a performer read her poem, I thought: Was that conversation not poetry?

Rather, is poetry anything but a kind of conversation?

This weeklong project came from a sort of uneasiness I grappled with in explaining why I like to go to poetry readings. How could a poem could seem different to me when I heard it read out loud versus when I read it to myself off a page? I couldn’t say.

That is, until I reached the end of my week, April 10, at CalSLAM, GenEq and the Multicultural Community Center’s ”To Give a Voice: Gender, Sexuality, Identity, and Experiences” open mic. Here, listening to a performer read her poem on stage, I again feel the words like points of contact, floating weightlessly in the space separating us and solidifying into a tenuous connection — a bridge between her experiences and mine.

It’s here that I realize the difference between going to a poetry reading and reading poetry alone, off a page — it’s in the way that you live the experience.

Slam poetry, as a genre of poetry delivered orally, works with conversation in a way few other art forms do. These poems aren’t delivered to their audience in print — and maybe aren’t even meant to be in print. Instead, they use the human voice — human contact — to tell searingly honest narratives that intensify the conversational experience of sharing stories and making a connection. Experiencing these poems live, at the open mic, I felt like I was locked in a confessional, without the shame or the anticipation of judgment.

And similarly, at any reading, no matter the genre of poetry, the words that you make contact with are, in a sense, living words. This is the difference between reading a poem alone, out of a book, and hearing a poem read by another person — the difference between a private act of reading and a public one.

Words in poems and words in everyday speech, or conversations, are the same words. Is that not the reason why I was jittery and nervous at the Holloway Reading last Wednesday, hoping that Fanny Howe would reach out and direct her words specifically to me — as if that isn’t what happens already when I read her poems? What we want when we go to readings is to feel that contact — the connection between people that we often associate with conversation.

Lindsay Choi writes student profiles and Thursday’s column on literature. Contact her at [email protected]

Contact Lindsay Choi at  or on Twitter


APRIL 16, 2015

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