CalSLAM directors discuss poetry, creating inclusive communities

Claire Liu/Staff

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“One of my favorite poets in Texas used to open workshops sometimes with ‘Make sure to be listening — to be respectful — because you never know what words are going to save you,’ ” says Sagaree Jain. “And I remember (being) just like, “Whoa! That is a crazy sentence — I feel that so much.”

We’re sitting at a table on the outdoor patio of Free Speech Movement Cafe during its bustling lunch hour on a warm, balmy afternoon. Here, apropos of the cafe’s name, UC Berkeley juniors Sagaree Jain and Stephanie Yun have met with me to discuss their work as co-directors of CalSLAM, the campus slam poetry organization, and the power of speech and expression afforded through slam poetry.

As the directors of CalSLAM, both Jain and Yun are poets, though they have come to slam poetry through very different avenues — Jain was introduced to slam poetry during her time at the University of Texas at Austin after what she describes as “a really bad breakup.” Yun began writing slam poetry through her work with Youth Speaks, a local nonprofit organization that works to empower youth through poetry. In 2012, she was named Oakland’s first youth poet laureate.

And through their efforts, Jain and Yun have been making a positive impact on the UC Berkeley community, members of CalSLAM say.

“I met Steph officially this year when I joined CalSLAM staff, but I had seen her at shows before, back when I was just a fan of CalSLAM,” said CalSLAM member and UC Berkeley freshman Carlitos Willis in an email. “I met Sagaree last year after she volunteered to be the sacrificial poet. … She was amazing. … They put a lot of time and work into making CalSLAM what it is and are always improving it slowly.”

Together, Jain and Yun work within the organization to provide a space for people to express themselves, and in doing so, the two directors have created a community.

“We hope that places like CalSLAM are somewhere where somebody can just be their authentic self, bring their whole selves and be witnessed and bear witness to others in our storytelling, in our expression and in our collective struggle,” Yun says. “There’s something to be said about not only creating your own words but having them manifest in front of other people — and having people supporting you and catching you in that moment.”

“A lot of (community-building) is in creating a safe space within the events and the workshops — about making it clear that we are a space that tries to cater to and respect marginalized voices, if that’s in terms of race, sexuality (or) gender,” Jain says. “And I think from there, a lot of people connect over things that they feel very strongly.”

And beyond the community-building power of slam poetry, both Jain and Yun assert that slam poetry’s impact and power to form connections come through the act of performance and vocalization.

“It’s (how) something that was once private and kept to oneself now becomes something shared — something communal,” Yun says. “And that interaction between the audience and the performer is something that I can’t even describe in words. There’s a lot of things that I feel that words are insufficient to explain. And I think that (the emotional) exchange is an unspoken interaction that happens, and the idea of poetry that’s supposed to be spoken out loud — poetry with a purpose — is something that we talk about a lot.”

So, they explain, often, slam poetry manifests in the form of political poems, because the desire for community and self-expression often combine to form a space for minority voices.

“CalSLAM is a space that really wants to highlight minority voices in all kinds of ways and really wants to help people shift the paradigm to one that is not as controlled by a certain narrative of media — the kind of white male Americana narrative that I don’t think works for everyone,” Jain says. “So I think sometimes, expressing your own stuff is political, just in that like ‘if people understood how I feel about this, people would also understand how I feel about this race-related protest.’ It’s political in that everything that we do is political.”

While slam poetry is a lot of things, most of all, it’s an act of empowerment and resistance.

“In like a lot of communities and spaces I’ve been in, but particularly in the poetry community, we talk about voice as power and silence as power, but the act of silencing as, quite frankly, death,” Yun says. “And the whole act of just speaking it out loud is an act of resistance.”


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