On the first Friday night of 2018, I reminded myself that sometimes it’s OK to do things alone. It’s OK to enjoy the company of strangers when you can’t find a friend to join you. That night, a room full of strangers turned into a community, helping me embrace poetry again.
It was this year’s Philly Pigeon Slam, which centered around women and nonbinary people. The stage was an outlet for the performers I watched to share their work, claim a platform and open up to an audience.
I’ve been attending poetry slams since my sophomore year of high school. The first one was at the Free Library of Philadelphia. I remember leaning forward in my seat as I watched and listened to the young poets — I was awestruck.
They poured their hearts out with their words in a rhythmic flow that felt like music. I thought to myself, “How can they make something so sad sound beautiful?”
Some poems allow writers to unpack trauma, but others can be lighthearted. Even though I didn’t go to a slam until I was 15 years old, I’d written poems for myself back in middle school.
I carried my marble notebook with me everywhere, clutched against my chest, waiting for a spark of inspiration. And since I haven’t written in a couple years, I miss the sound of my pen scratching excitedly across the page when I thought of something clever, not caring when the ink smudged against my fingers.
The last poem I wrote was for a zine — a miniature, independent magazine — back in 2015. It was a dreamlike piece of writing about searching for something in a world full of unknowns. I thought it was my best work, but I haven’t picked up a pen with the same passion since.
My confidence hadn’t been the same since I wrote that poem, which I was so proud of. After that, I compared myself so much to other poets that I focused more on their strengths and less on my own.
Instead, I would sit for hours just trying to think of a strong adjective to describe something, while other poets incorporate words or intricate metaphors with ease. I thought a rhyming scheme would help, but then it seemed childish. Some poems can convey a deep and personal message in just three lines, while I struggled to write a single word. The more I compared myself to others, the less satisfied I became.
As an audience member at The Philly Pigeon Slam a couple weeks ago, intoxicated by the energy of the crowd, I wondered if I could ever be on that stage, or any stage.
Many of the poems inspired me to write again. Participants had written about a variety of topics like serving in the military, surviving a suicide attempt, reclaiming cultural traditions and confronting the fears of women and nonbinary people in a patriarchal society.
One poem really struck a chord in me — it was about writing and performing poetry, something I had struggled with for so long.
The poet stood in front of the mic taking deep breaths, before their eyes finally opened with a fire behind them.
The poem prompted me to reflect on myself as a poet — which poems are meant for the stage? And which are meant for the page? Are you writing for yourself or an audience? Does your poem have to rhyme? Do the people who care about your work also care about the poet behind it?
Everyone in that room knew there was truth behind it, and it ended up scoring high. All my own concerns were laid out on that stage by those words.
There are pressures and expectations when writing a poem, even with the many forms it can take. I had it engraved in my head that every poem had to flow a certain way, everything needed to rhyme and even my speech had to match other slam poets’ voices.
But hearing this poem helped me realize that I shouldn’t worry about finding the perfect metaphor each time I’m trying to explain how I’m feeling. At the end of the day, there’s no such thing as a bad poem. And it’s OK to simply write for myself instead of an audience.
I had to leave the slam early. But as I walked out into the brisk cold with snow flattening under my shoes, I was so happy I decided to go. I decided I want to start writing poetry again, attending workshops and going to more slams.
And I hope to one day get on that stage and claim a new home.