By Gigi Marino
Lewisburg, Pa. — The house lights at a packed Uptown, Bucknell's student nightclub, dim on a Friday night in February. Jamaal May steps into the halo of red-and-blue stage light, adjusts the mic and begins to speak.
"I have a confession to make./ I've been writing the wrong poems./ I've been writing the wrong songs/ and attempting to right the wrong wrongs/ when I should have been pointing my pen/ toward more passionate places, like out there."
On the words, "out there," he raises his arm and gestures upward. The power of the poem — and its performance — is an invocation, part song, part prayer. The audience is hooked. They would follow him anywhere.
May, a three-time Rustbelt Poetry Slam champion and Stadler Fellow, is one of the hosts of the Stadler Center Slams, a reading series launched at the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year. Stadler Center for Poetry director Shara McCallum has been wanting to introduce a slam series at Bucknell for nine years. "When we selected Jamaal as the Stadler Fellow," she said, "we saw a wonderful opportunity to have someone with his background and knowledge of that world help us."
The history of slams
Poetry slams began 25 years ago at Chicago's Green Mill Tavern with poet Marc Smith, who wanted to energize open-mic night and ended up energizing the literary world. Today, poetry slams occur worldwide.
"There has been some resistance to slam in certain academic circles, as well as a resistance to what's considered academic poetry in slam circles," said May. "But I'm seeing a trend of those lines being blurred. Participants in slam on a national level seem to have an increased interest in how poems work on the page as well as how they sound in the air. Evidence can be found in the increased number of literary publications showing up on the resume of the most notable slam poets."
The world of slam is made up of poets who write to be heard. The focus is on the spoken word, but there's also an element of competition. "Slams are traditionally urban. There aren't many rules. If you feel it, you can speak it," said Lakiyra "Oompa" Williams '13. "Coming into Bucknell, I couldn't bridge the gap between academic poetry and performance poetry. Shara McCallum and the slams did that for me."
Slams at Bucknell University
The slams happen twice a semester, begin with an open mic, feature a guest poet and end with one round of slam open to anyone in the audience. Next year, said McCallum, the series will be again hosted by May and co-hosted by students. "This is a completely student-driven, student-centered exercise," she explained. "Slam is youth driven, centers on contemporary issues, often politicized, personal but with a slant toward identity politics."
"Bringing slam to Bucknell feeds into my vision for the kind of cross-pollination I want to see more of," said May. "My aim with the slam has been to expose students to a poetry experience and talented features they wouldn't likely get otherwise. Every feature poet has been chosen for a mixture of the performance skill, quality of published writing and unique slant they can bring to the campus."
The guest poets have included Rachel McKibbens and Mindy Nettifi, part of a movement to redefine feminism for a new generation; Caribbean writer Roger Bonair-Agard; educator and author Will Evans.
"In April, we will feature Gypsee Yo, an Albanian poet who fled a war torn country, yet writes beautifully uplifting poetry with spiritual overtones," said May. "It's my hope that seeing these performers will inspire Bucknell students to take risks in their writing, even in their lives."
The last slam of the semester will take place on April 5 at Uptown. Free pizza is available to all who attend. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., sign-up takes place at 6:45 p.m. and open mic begins at 7 p.m.
Contact: Division of Communications