By Rachel McKibbens
It has taken me two years to get around to writing this, but after coming home from the Women of the World poetry slam on Sunday, and being asked repeatedly what I meant by something I said onstage at the end of my last bout, I feel it best to put this up as soon as possible, so we can gear up for next year well in advance.
What I said (not verbatim, but close)
“This is the best tournament that PSI puts on. Women, do not let this tournament get taken from you. Be coached and mentored by whoever you want, but remember – we do not play the same game as the men.”
What I Meant
In 2010, while in the green room for the WoWps finals, I realized that two of the finalists brought coaches with them, unlike any of the competitors from the 2008 and 2009 WoWps and unlike every other competitor in the three IWPS finals (that I had been present for.) Both of the coaches were male. I wasn’t sure why it bothered me, but it did. It happened, again, the next year.
I was initially struck by the fact that an individual competitor would have a coach at all, let alone all the way up to the final stage. Unlike team competition, where a coach has up to five people to place in a bout, and strategy becomes necessary, I figured, once an individual made the final stage, the game was, essentially over; to me, the point of finals has always been about showcasing my strongest work and never about the trophy. I realize not everyone plays the game the same way I do. I’ve since been told by several women that they just wanted the support of a fellow (and more experienced) poet. Still, I have never seen a male poet in an indy competition with a female coach.
After experiencing WoWps in 2009, it quickly became my favorite competition because it was the first national competition where the overall feeling of every bout was that of nurturing and encouragement. It was women working alongside women. Never against. The presence of coaches changes that, especially during finals, and the the presence of male coaches during finals not only changes the feeling of community (because a coach represents the part of slam that is focused on strategy and points) but also effects what has, for two days, been a women-only experience for the slammers; suddenly, the poet has to consider the male presence when deciding whether they want to change their finals outfit, adjust their bra, or nurse their baby, etc.
I have a lot more to say on this topic, but I’ll touch on that later. For now, let’s move on to this: If you don’t think male slammers are playing a different game than female slammers, allow me to share with you what I have learned during my eleven years in slam.
Female poets are judged with an entirely different set of criteria than male poets. Men are routinely rewarded for expressing vulnerability and are free to be angry in a way that women are not. Men get extra points solely for having the emotional capacity to write a poem at all. (Go to your local bookstore. It’s hard to find journals that aren’t embossed with butterflies or flowers.) So, women are expected to write poetry, men are rewarded for it. This is not a male poet’s fault – it is, simply, a side effect of our culture’s perception of a male and female’s roles in this here patriarchal American society. Studies have produced neurobiological evidence that women have a better brain capacity than men when it comes to censoring their aggression and anger. I believe female judges often look down on a female poet’s inability to “control” her rage (whether it be through the actual text of the poem or onstage voice control) and men view it as overly hostile.
Men and women do NOT get rewarded for the same things in slam. A male poet can co-opt a woman’s experience by having a female proxy (i.e “my sister was raped”) and is considered magnanimous and enlightened, whereas a woman’s personal account of first-hand rape or abuse is often considered cliché. (After countless “heroic” anti-rape poems by men at national competitions, the amazingly funny poet, Kristen Smith, wrote a brilliant, satirical response poem, “Rape is Bad: The Musical,” and I am still confused at people who were angry about it.)
A female poet is rarely “allowed” to be both funny and dramatic. Often, she must make a conscious choice to be either “funny” in an entire bout, or serious. When a man does this, he is considered to be showing “range.” A woman comes off as erratic. Worse, comedic poems by women don’t score as well as comedic poems by men. I call this the Joan Rivers syndrome. Society will accept a funny woman, but with conditions. A woman is allowed to be self-denigrating, but she won’t be rewarded to the point where she is considered “the best.” (Johnny Carson loved Rivers and even had her sit in as host for years whenever he was gone. That is, until she was given her own show. After that, he banned her from his stage for life.)
Society views a man’s voice as more authoritative and informative, so it is no surprise that a group of five judges (randomly selected from the audience) will score a serious, didactic or political poem higher if it comes from a male poet. Women, when writing political, must always include themselves as subject, whereas a man is allowed to rail against the president, dropping second-hand data or anecdotes without having to include his own personal experience or relationship to the material. Another study has shown that men and women have gender-specific language due to word usage. Men use language that is considered “informative,” (nouns, longer words) and women use words that are “involved” (pronouns and present-tense words.) Audiences/judges assume a male poet’s story is authentic without the need for self-inclusion. Because of this unconscious bias, even work that speaks to identity or political and sexual oppression is rewarded more when it is a male speaker. (This is, however, dependent on region. Where homophobia is rampant, women are “allowed” to be gay more than men; women are experimenting, men are sinning.)
There is also an issue of wardrobe and sexuality. There is a larger set of assumptions being made about a female poet, based on her appearance, before she opens her mouth. Think about how often you hear audience members shout (poets included) things about a female poet’s physical appearance, right before her poem starts. If the poet’s work does not meet the expectation(s) created by her appearance, she will lose points. A man can dress however he wants (logos, suits, hats, flashy jewelry, etc) and can still expect to have his work heard and judged solely on its merits as a poem.
The first Individual World Poetry Slam was in 2004. Of the twelve finalists, three were women. In 2005, one. 2006, five. 2007, three. 2008, four. In 2009, when IWPS was held in the liberal haven of Berkeley, California, I posted this status update: “I’d like a woman to win IWPS for once. And I believe it can actually happen in Berkeley.”
That year, a record six women made finals and Amy Everhart made history becoming the first female to win the IWPS championship. This must have awakened the slam gods, because in 2010, only two females made the cut. In 2011, five of the finalists were women (there was also one trans male poet.) One female champion in the eight years of IWPS history. And of the 96 finalists who have competed for the IWPS title, 29 have been female.
The Women of the World poetry slam was created to highlight and elevate the most underrepresented voices of slam. It has since become regarded as the best national competition PSI has to offer. It is a community-building event, meant to better unify the slam community by showcasing the women who have been overshadowed by male-dominated poetry slam scenes. The lack of women in the poetry slam scene is due to several factors:
1. Female poets cannot tour as much as the men, due to family, monetary or safety issues. This means less female features in general.
2. On the rare occasion that a female makes a National Poetry Slam team, she is often either buried in a group piece or given a very limited amount of stage time due to her coach’s lack of understanding of or faith in her work. Also, she is only allowed to present her “safest” work–easily accessible poetry that has “survived” a male coach’s veto.
3. Since women do not stay in slam as long as the average male slammer, newer female slammers have no long-term slam aspirations and have fewer opportunities for a female coach/mentor/role model.
4. All of the above creates a dearth of female voices on the entry-level of slam/local scene which means less aspiring female poets in the audience. This also means poetry audiences/slam judges have to “get accustomed” to the female voice and experience. This is also why there is usually “the darling” of a poetry scene: the sole, doted-upon “girl” slammer who never gets to become an actual WOMAN slammer. (Oh, if only Sheila Siobhan were still here to help pontificate. She had a LOT to say on this subject.)
I understand that these four points are also why there are more experienced male poets available to mentor/coach the few female slammers in national competitions. Many of these men are positive influences who are trying to motivate and foster the female voices coming up in their poetry slam scenes. I myself was mentored by male poets the first four years of my slam career and I do not hesitate to display my gratitude on a routine basis.
These men have supported me since the first time I ever attended an open mic, back in 2001. And not once in the past eleven years have they ever attempted to credit themselves for my accomplishments. They have never asserted themselves as necessary for my continued success, or acted as my handler, nor have they made public wagers on my performances at national competitions. I have never been treated like a race horse. My accomplishments have always been mine. Their support, love and influence has always been equally unconditional and personal. They taught me the basics of craft. And they were also the EXTREMELY rare men of slam who knew about voice control, levels, nuance and meter. (I can spot a male-coached female slammer a mile away. All you have to do is watch the veins pop out of her neck.)
The men who influenced my writing could only influence it so far. They could not teach me what Daphne Gottlieb or Anne Sexton taught me. They could not empower me with the commonality of the female experience like Mindy Nettifee. I am a woman and a mother first. Lucille Clifton does for me what Charles Bukowski cannot. Could never. Won’t ever. Laura Moran taught me how to speak on a mic, even though it was Derrick Brown who made the NPS final stage. I adopted Hope Alvarado’s physical composure on the mic, and she’s never even competed at a national event.
This does not mean I do not value what the men have taught me. It means only that my development as a female artist required more than what they could offer.
Thanks to WoWps, young female poets have greater access to female mentors than ever in the history of slam. Women, I implore you to seek out younger poets (of any gender.) Younger poets, I implore you to ask for mentorship from the women of slam you admire. Men, if you truly want to support female voices in slam, the best way to do that is to support female voices in slam. Book female artists for your venue. Go to WoWps and buy an actual finals ticket and/or tournament pass. Buy their books and CDs. Teach them in your classes and workshops. Teach them how to strategize, but leave it up to them to learn to trust their amazingly unique and female gut.
I love this game. It’s random and wild. I could not leave it until I knew it was in good hands. Ladies, your hands! They’re fucking amazing. Please. Believe that.
Thanks for this thoughtful discourse on the slam scene and women.
You killed it in Seattle last week. I have a matenl block against most slam poetry, but I could tell you actually had something to say. Just thought I’d throw that out there And thanks for the kind words after my demoralizing head to head slam. It’s nice to know the other guy stole hella lines, but I’m sure that wasn’t the only reason he beat me (24-2! Jesus!), the mic cut out during the second half of my poem! Anyway, just wanted to let you know you cheered me the hell up.By the way, this is Kevin. I’m not sure if you remember me or not
One of the most enlightening pieces on sexism in the poetry I have ever read. You approach slam culture from many angles (body language, clothes, tone of voice, topic, and so on) and show many subtle, unconscious forces that, once revealed, are glaring.
Thank you Rachel. My thesis is on how identity is created through language and what being party of the slam community constructs as far as identity. I could have used this article as a citation it is so well written. – hb
So enlightening and inspiring.
You also opened a big new door into slam for me with this piece–I did not even realize before how much the sexism of the scene was barricading me out, and now that is obvious.