The Editors Write: With her fearless internal excavations and snap-rattle metaphors, Megan Thoma is easily among the most interesting of the current generation of poets coming into their own by way of slam. Note the phraseology: Is that in some way insinuating that she’s not a slam poet? That would seem silly, but in not picking the argument, we seem to have picked it anyway, which, in a lot of ways, seems appropriate when writing about this particular poet. Megan Thoma is a slam poet in the truest sense of the word, which is to say her writing has a proletarian accessibility and a keen literary edge. She is – clearly – concerned with writing well, and pushing the boundaries of what her own writing can do, but is also concerned with how to deliver that poem to a reader, whether live or on the page. There’s a deep desire to connect in Thoma’s poetry, and a profound indifference as to whether she makes that connection with a dusty college professor or a drunk at a bar. Thoma’s writing conveys a steadfast belief that the reader or listener matters, and that, one would think, is the essence of slam.
By Megan Thoma
Look at my horns. I wear my horns on my head. Look at how I tear. Look
at my hammer hands, look at the hammer shatter. I am so good
at break. So good at break. So good at breaking things. I wear my horns
on my elbows. On my face. Protruding from the plump of my cheeks. Look
at my mouth. I chew glass with my teeth. Look at my mouth. My mouth’s an exit
wound. Flying fragments exit wound. Look at the heavy, fierce exhale. The word splinter
has so many more syllables around me. Look at the ground. Jump, jump. I wear
my horns on the bottom of my feet. Look at the floor. You thought you had floor, floor was there, that there was floor for all your gravity to hold you to. Jump. Jump, jump. Jump, jump, jump. Look at cracks. Look at my lips, I use them to kiss, I use them to plant mines in your skin. Look at all the buildings made of china. Look at all the people
made of china. Look at their pottery mark faces. Look at my danger skin. Look
at their shatter. I stack rubble, stack shards of pots, that’s my job, pretend that the clay clink and scratch of piled pieces means fixed. Like collecting edges means you can hold
water again. I cannot mend. I wear my horns on the tips of my fingers. Look at me fumble fumble for years. Look at me love. Look at me clumsy. Look at me try. Look
at me fail. Look at me fail. Look at me fail. Look at me break.
Look at you. You got fire curves. You got an unbreakable glow.
You got burn rolling strong from the pit of your chest.
Look at your hands. Your blowtorch hands. Look at your weld.
Look at my old parts new again. Look at me heal.
Look at my hands. My hammer hands.
The edges knicked round after years of spark and clang.
Look at the nail. So long and delicate.
How it balances nervously between my hands.
Like learning to stand again. Look at my hammer hands.
Look at their purpose. Look at their sure swing.
How the wood swallows the nail whole.
Look at the sturdy.
Look at the certain.
Look at the home we’re building.
Look at the fireplace. How it warms. How it burns.
How it pulses like a heart.
Writes Thoma: Both of my selections answer the question, “What is a slam poem?” in their own way. I despise the two extreme answers that come up often. The first, the stereotypical view of slam poetry as strictly narrative, usually rooted in personal trauma (or pimping the trauma of others), and with excessive volume and over-the-top emotional displays. The second, more new-age, “Anything can be slam poetry! That’s the beauty of it!” Sure, there is some truth in both of these definitions, and the sentiment behind them — that poetry slams provide a stage for anyone and everyone to tell their story in any way that they want — is what made poetry slams popular and unique. Neither is sufficient for me though and even the question isn’t explicit enough. The more important question is, “What makes a good slam poem?”
Slam poetry’s roots are in the audience and that poetry — listening to it, reading it, writing it, and enjoying it — should be accessible to everyone. The goals of a slam poem are similar to all poetry: to make explicit choices with language and structure to aid in delivering your thesis, some truth about the world and/or human existence. Where slam deviates is its accessibility. I believe a great slam poem is able to deliver that thesis, that nugget of human love or torment or acceptance or want or beauty or horror, to anyone who hears it. I also believe your language and ideas should be intricate and challenging so that your work engages an audience too, but that the pit of the poem, that heart, is accessible to as many people as possible.
Many poets miss the mark just using the prior criteria. They are either careless with language, too verbose or intellectual, or simply have nothing of substance to say. If you are able to accomplish this though, that still leaves you with a good slam poem. To be great is a lot more abstract and hard to define, but I believe it falls in the realm of being original. In content, in delivery, in the road that you travel to get there. How you do those things and whether you do them successfully are pretty subjective, but man, do I love the poets who try.
Everything I love about Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s work is what I love about Cristin herself. Her poetry is earnest, funny, rooted in her experiences, and aching to make a connection with you on the most honest and genuine level. Cristin is a champion for poets, slam poets, women, the working class, and underdogs everywhere. Most important, Cristin is a champion for joy. Her poems are successful in slams and in the literary world because of their accessibility and their heart, but don’t let that—or the fact that she can make you laugh—fool you into thinking her prowess with language and structure is lacking. (And for those of you who do think that: go suck a dick. Then go read her books again. Feel free to reverse the order.) I know that “joy” shouldn’t feel original, but it does. Because of all the places it pops up in Cristin’s work. There is joy in porn, in rejection, in poverty, in humiliation, and even in giraffe rape. I’ve started to joke that hanging out with her is some sort of pilgrimage or rejuvenating respite. Her poetry and leadership within this community has inspired me for well over a decade, and her friendship has been instrumental to me in persevering as a writer and performer and having faith in my voice and potential.
By Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
At the coffeehouse, I’m known as yogurt and granola.
At the supermarket, I’m known as large coffee, strong.
The old waiters in Queens called me Christine, because
I couldn’t correct them after nine years of mistakes.
To the first boy I every kissed, I’m probably the girl
with a last name he can’t remember. To the second boy
I ever kissed, I am likely the brunette friend of the blonde
he really want to kiss. To my professors, I was the front row,
the raised hand, the extra credit. To my poetry friends,
I am the deadline, the push on the shoulder. To my non-poet
friends, I’m the poet. To my mom, I’m Cristin. To my dad,
I’m Pumpkin. To my nephews, I’m the person standing right
next to Uncle Shappy. I’ve answered to Professor Aptowicz,
to Ms. Cristin, to Hey You! I’ve been the new girl, the old
hand, the affable host. I’ve answered to a cleared throat,
to an awkward silence, to a snapped finger. This is all to say,
I wonder how you think of me now: am I still the crazy girl?
the loud one? the one who’d never go away? I know I was
the world’s most transparent mystery, the persistent email,
the Christmas cookies you never wanted, hand-delivered.
If we met today, I hope I wouldn’t just be an apology.
I hope I’d be the laugh in your fist, the second pancake,
the spilled coffee sipped from a saucer. I want to be that
great joke you mistakenly forgot, the one that’s still funny.
Writes Thoma: Fuck Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie. Fuck all her names and her awesome, awesome talent. Hot damn this girl is good. Laura is pushing the art form in ways that I deeply envy, and I hope in ways that push others to do the same. Laura’s poems are on a larger variety of topics, but are rooted in the way that humans interact with the natural world and how elements of modern culture—like advertising, technology, and media—impact that interaction. She takes large risks with her performance, using props, group voices, and audience participation in inventive ways that with a lesser poet would feel gimmicky, but because of Laura’s exquisite talents as a writer and the thought that she puts into her work, they become an incredibly important vehicle in telling her story. Her ideas and language are complex, but she uses her performance to create pathways of understanding, and even if you miss details, the message will punch you in all the places it planned to. Her introduction and poem below say it all. She is on the Providence Poetry Slam team this year for the National Poetry Slam, and I’m anxious for the national scene to see what she does.
my man johnnie
By Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie
This poem was inspired by a Johnnie Walker Black ad campaign which featured expressions of very platonic affection between men, in quotation marks, next to a picture of a bottle of Johnnie Walker, also in quotation marks. The slogan was “say it without saying it,” implying, I gathered, that a bottle of whiskey says it all.
we speak in liquids
me and my man johnnie
says the coffee that I bring to him in bed
“how’s your head?”
asks the alkaseltzer
he gets up and goes to the bathroom
“morning, baby, how’d you sleep”
says his piss hitting the bowl
my tea replies
we speak in liquids
me and my man johnnie
“i’ll be home by six”
says his mouthwash in the sink
“dinner will be fixed”
I gurgle mine and swish
and before he leaves
I lick my lips
a liquid kiss
“i’m gonna miss you”
says my spit
later on, he gets back and pops a cork
“seeing you at the end of the day is a celebration”
says the champagne on his tongue–
my man johnnie, he’s glib with a bottle
I fizz when he swallows
and I swallow what he pours,
a cold beer with a good head
we love in liquids, that’s a fact
between my legs a welcome mat
“home sweet home”
says my wet
my man johnnie doesn’t talk to his friends
but it seems like they all have a great time anyway
the keg in the corner laughs like a room full of 50 men
the rum in their mugs sounds like brothers hugging one another
and the whiskey, oh the whiskey
it fills the room with their father’s voices
“i’m proud i’m proud i’m proud”
we speak in liquids
but johnnie’s mute in the eyes
they’re always dry
and he’s deaf at night
despite the sometime demon cacophony
that screeches down my cheeks
I sit on a bulldozer at dawn
sobbing down the oncoming traffic
and his snores are horns,
warning me about something
I can’t speak too much without puking
and he can talk all night but he won’t remember it
when he wakes up from that black sleep of his
and kisses me tomato juice tobasco
“hello hello, why so puffy eyed?”
we speak in liquids
me and my man johnnie,
and when our son learned how to talk
he said “mama”
and I whispered “i love you”
and he repeated “i love you”
then he said “dada”
“dada, I love you”
and my man johnnie poured himself a drink
stirred it with the boy’s pacifier
stuck it in his son’s mouth and said
you’re a johnnie walker
we don’t say it
we sip it”
my son johnnie doesn’t talk to his wife
she’s a quiet girl, with an articulate wrist
swirling her wine, taking a sip…
we all speak the same language.
but there are moments,
after a long night of pouring shots of affection down each others’ throats,
when a silence falls over the room
and I wish someone would say something out loud
but our mouths are deserts
and we all just sit there wondering how we got so parched
sucking on our tongues like olives