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Students share stories through powerful slam poetry

“So, does anyone have anything else they’d like to share?”

A few moments of silence. A man wearing a zip-up sweatshirt over a neon orange t-shirt from the back of the room offers to perform. When he begins to speak, he immediately takes hold of the audience’s attention, pacing back and forth and gesturing as if he is grasping at the words as they roll off his tongue. His poem about racial identity, “I think,” possesses a rhythm that is beautiful and chilling at the same time.

After his performance, the man introduced himself as Professor Will “C.” Chalmus ’07, an adjunct theatre professor teaching a “Playback Theatre” course this semester. Chalmus has attended national poetry slam competitions.

Chalmus’ performance followed 11 student-performed poets at the ’DEIS Impact event “Slam Impact.” On the night of Friday, Feb. 2, approximately 45 students gathered in the Mandel Center for the Humanities Atrium for the event that provided students with a space to share their experiences through poetry and the spoken word. The theme of the event was “living social justice.” Eleven students performed before the mic was opened up to anyone with an experience they wanted to share.

The event attracted student poets who frequent perform in the Brandeis slam community and others who were performing for their first times. The poems covered a wide range of deeply personal content, including experiences with self-discovery and acceptance, eating disorders, police brutality and marginalization of minorities. Every piece was spoken with powerful sincerity, and after the event members of the crowd were heard earnestly praising the poets. Instead of snaps, the ends of each performance were greeted with enthusiastic applause.

Coordinators of the event Lizy Dabanka ’20 and Sohaima Khilji ’20 gave a brief introduction, welcoming impromptu speakers at the open mic after the scheduled performances. After a detailed content warning, the first poet came up to the microphone. He went by “Bethlehem the Producer” and performed “Language,” a piece about his relationship with slang that is degrading to women. His was the only piece spoken over music.

Olivia Nichols ’20 performed “Coming Out Soon,” which she said was partially based off of events that occurred at the end of last summer, though she had been working on the material of the poem for longer.

“It started out as the idea that often the narrative of coming out is portrayed as something very clean cut, that there’s a certain amount of buildup and then it’s let out all at once and everything is fine and dandy. But that’s not the reality for a lot of people,” Nichols said. “It’s about first coming to terms with the self within the self, and then sharing that self with others. It’s a complicated process.”

Nichols performs frequently at Brandeis poetry slams and said that slam poetry as an art form is very raw. “Vulnerability is a huge part of what people express through slam poetry. The sources of vulnerability are often social pressures and oppression, and that coincides with the mission of ’DEIS Impact, which is a week of learning and sharing and processing and hearing all of these different perspective about what social justice actually looks like.”

The last scheduled performance was Ben Greene’s ’21 poem, “Some Questions from a Trans Boy.” Greene had written the poem when he was 16, and when he finished his powerful performance multiple audience members wiped away tears.

“My transition was really stressful for me,” Greene said about his inspiration. “I struggled a lot with trying to put myself in a box of being the perfect man, but I ended up feeling just as unhappy as I had been before. I realized that I needed to let myself be my own kind of man.”

Marci McPhee, a faculty member on ’DEIS Impact’s steering committee, attended the event. “It’s dynamite. Everything so far has been really provocative and so much to think about,” McPhee said.

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