The word behind spoken word: Unmasking the poets of WU-SLam

Caroline Ludeman | Scene Reporter

If you haven’t heard slam poet Franny Choi’s rendition of Lil Wayne’s “Pussy Monster,” you clearly haven’t been hanging around the members of WU-SLam, Wash. U.’s own slam poetry club. I sat down with five slammers, asking them a set of five questions about their WU-SLam experiences and inspirations. If you want to know more about these slammers—besides a general adoration for Fanny Choi—get to know them below and attend their upcoming performance this Saturday at 7 p.m. in Umrath Lounge.


1. What is your favorite poem or poet? 

2. What is your favorite part of WU-SLam?

3. What is the craziest poem or prompt you have ever heard?

4. What is the most memorable reaction to a poem you’ve seen so far?

5. What makes slam poetry attractive to performers and audience members?

Tabia Yapp:

1. “One of my favorite poets is Franny Choi, an artist who hails from Providence. WU-SLam was lucky enough to fly her in to host our October Slam just a few weeks ago. My favorite poem right now is probably ‘What It’s Like to Be a Black Girl (For Those of You Who Aren’t)’ by Patricia Smith.”

2. “WU-SLam has become my extended family. Being a part of this community has given me a home on this campus since my freshman year. Also, poets give great hugs!”

3. “Every Wednesday night, WU-SLam hosts Inklings in Ursa’s at 7:30 p.m., an event open to any writer and/or listener who is interested in poetry. My favorite prompts usually involve lists and self-reflective questions, such as, ‘Name 5 five voices that are familiar to you’ or ‘ List 5 objects you have never seen.’”

4. “So there’s snapping and clapping, but by far, my favorite reactions to poems usually involve what is called a ‘poet moan,’ which is exactly what it sounds like. Sounds of enjoyment or agreement that are unleashed in response to orgasmic poetry.”

5. “Slam poetry is fresh. Poetry allows a writer a variety of things. For example, it provides a space of honesty with oneself or an outlet for emotion and storytelling. For the listener, the ability to identify or understand spoken word is powerful and moving. I think these combined forces make slam poetry attractive and necessary.”

Amie Smartt-Nalli:

1. “My favorite poet is Matthea Harvey; however, my favorite poem isn’t by Harvey, it’s ‘We Who Are Your Closest Friends’ by Phillip Lopate.”

2. “My favorite aspect of WU-SLam is its community outreach to local schools. Slamming and campus events are great, but getting to teach kids about poetry is greater.”

3. “Last week’s Inklings prompt was fun. Among other things, it said to write a poem without a part of speech that we picked out of a hat. Someone wrote a poem without verbs, and my mind was blown.”

4. “A poet in the 2011 October Slam slammed a poem about dubstep. I loved how the audience was silent for a moment, then roared with laughter. It took a minute for everyone to realize that a poet essentially said ‘waaa waaaa wa wa wa wa waaaa!’ into a microphone.”

Adam Segal:

1. “My favorite poet is Emily Dickinson, but my favorite slam poet is George Watsky, especially ‘S for Lisp’ and ‘Go Robo.’”

2. “My favorite aspect of WU-SLam is working with the community, especially with St. Louis schools. I remember one time after a high-school performance when students stayed past the end-of-day bell to ask us questions about our poems, and several were interested in starting their own slam group.”

3. “The craziest poem I’ve ever heard is Franny Choi’s ‘Pussy Monster,’ where she reorders the words of a Lil Wayne rap.”

4. “I was performing a poem about masturbation sophomore year, and at one point during the show Gabriel Cralley’s mother looked me in the eyes and started applying copious amounts of hand sanitizer.”

5. “I think the most inviting thing about slam poetry is that anyone can do it. You don’t need to have a fancy instrument, you don’t need a talent or a finely trained skill like singing or dancing. You just need a story, and everyone has those, and you can take the stage, and people will listen to you. Also it is such a supportive and understanding community. Everyone has their own experiences, but there are similarities that connect us that you might never expect, and I think those surface a lot during slam performances.”

Susan Lee:

1. “Poetry-wise, my favorite poem is ‘In Just’ by e.e. cummings. My favorite slam-poets…I guess most of them are in WU-SLam itself – Sam Lai, Maxine Wright, and Ben Tolkin consistently blow me away – but outside of WU-SLam, Franny Choi is god.”

2. “I love the intensity of WU-SLam. The people in it are just so real. They aren’t afraid to approach the ugly side of humans; they’ll embrace everyone for his/her own uniqueness. This means that WU-SLam is also incredibly quirky—there’s never a boring moment around them. We get to know each other quickly—after all, we’re kind of laying our hearts out on the stage for the world to see.”

4. “Whenever I read a poem, I secretly listen to the snaps that come during the middle of it; everyone snaps near the end, but snaps after particular lines make me feel like people are actually listening and appreciating each sentence. After all, a poet carefully chooses every single word in the poem, but often some of the words get lost. Those snaps mean that your effort is appreciated.”

5. “I did band all throughout high school and am currently in an a cappella group. I love performing through these mediums, but as the Mamas and Papas say, ‘Make your own kind of music.’ Nothing is quite so you as slam poetry. Nothing is elaborated or staged. For three minutes, the audience can truly understand one aspect of who you are. I also feel like slam has a bit of a ‘bad-a–ery’ quality to it.”

Taylor Geiger:

1. “This fluctuates often, but recently I have been infatuated with ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ by Robert Hass and ‘Depth Perception’ by Tatyana Brown. I also just read ‘Erosion,’ a book by Jorie Graham, that I really enjoyed.”

2. “I love the way excellent people build each other excellently. I remember a practice that me and the other members of our last National Poetry Slam team had a few months ago in August. We each performed four poems, twice each, which adds up to 40 individual performances. That’s over two hours of straight poetry practice, not even counting the time between poems, and not for a minute did I wish I were anywhere else. A few days earlier, while getting breakfast at Booster’s, the five of us had a lengthy conversation about animal rights, dolphins and vegetarianism.”

3. “I once heard a poem by this older man from London—I think the title was ‘Word’—where he started by just growling and groaning. It really freaked everybody out. This guy keeps making these noises, and suddenly the noises are single words—he’s just barking them out, one after the other—and you slowly realize that he’s giving you a full description of the beginning of creation until present day, all in single words. Somehow he was able to convey the evolution of animals, the passing of ages in human history, and technological development without so much as a phrase or sentence. Crazy.”

4. “A few days ago, actually, we went to Humboldt Elementary School for the first of three spoken word workshops we’re doing with three classes of fifth graders there. Karisa Tavassoli got up to perform a poem for the kids, prompting them to guess her character (it’s a poem in the voice of Tigger from Pooh Bear). About halfway through the poem, Karisa mentions the Hundred Acre Wood, which sent the whole room of fifth graders into a stifled fit of infectious giggles. It was incredible.”

5. “Slam poetry is down for anything. I think people are attracted to write slam poems because there isn’t this big set of formal considerations that have to be made. It’s not about meter or the literary canon or reinventing tired genres, even if that does happen a lot. It’s a public platform where you can tell everybody what makes you tick. Somebody once told me that it’s how they let others know about the hidden parts of them. It’s making the private image you have of yourself visible to everyone. I haven’t been to a slam where the audience didn’t sigh, laugh, hug, cringe and cry by the end of it. It’s this great return to the origins of poetry, a big beautiful discourse between normal people touting familiar problems and urges and passions, in all their unabashed messiness.”

Photo Credits: Kastyn Matheny | Student Life