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In the Shadow of the Mic

Slam poetry – poetry that combines performance, writing, competition and audience participation. It’s raw, emotional, and radiates a certain energy that you might not find with traditional poetry. One can almost say it’s the “punk rock” of literature. It’s heavy hitting in nature, and whether or not there’s a connection with subject matter, one can certainly connect with the passion that’s casted out from the speaker’s lips. In In the Shadow of the Mic: Three Decades of Slam Poetry in Pittsburgh, edited by Jesse Welch and Adriana Ramirez, you’ll feel just that. The book contains a wide array of slam poetry from different artists touching on topics from mental health, to drug abuse, and gender dysphoria, with a dash of interviews scattered throughout. It encapsulates the magic that is the Pittsburgh slam poetry scene.

Everything in this book is unique, heartfelt, and shows just how special the scene is. A highlight for those unaware of how it all got started, is an interview with Christina Springer, who was part of the movement that established the Pittsburgh scene. She talks of the origin behind starting slam in Pittsburgh, favorite moments, and her journey. She’s about as punk rock as you can get, saying she realized Pittsburgh needed a scene after seeing M. Christian Robinson perform spoken word. A lively guy, he exuded so much spirit and that it created a ripple effect in those who wanted to be a part of it. Springer soon found herself a part of it and found herself even going on tour to Lollapalooza to perform. It’s a tale of inspiration for anyone looking to get involved and shows the roots of slam poetry in Pittsburgh have always been punk rock.

As mentioned before, the book touches on serious topics, ranging from drug abuse, to mental health, and everything in between. In Stacey Waite’s “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Man by a Waiter While Having Breakfast,” she talks of dysphoria as a member of the LGBTQ community. It starts with her being mistaken for a boy by a waiter when out to eat with her mother. From there, she talks of moments before her coming out; it was a simple time of just being a tomboy and having society accept the phase. As she says, “I just want to go back to before, but I am not before,” you can’t help but empathize with her. It’s a struggle too many people face within the community, and it’s something that should be talked about more. Gender roles aren’t what they used to be, and everyone should be able to be their true selves without worrying about how society will accept them.

One of the most poignant pieces in the collection is Ben Caroline Stuligross’ “A Night After Queer People Die, I Walk Home in the Rain.” This piece was written for the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, and one can’t help but feel the sorrow and fear that was carried on after it happened. It was a true display of hate against the LGBTQ community, and those that identified within the collective had a new sense of dread that overcame them. His last verse, “I walk home and think how dark it must have been that night. How wet,” says so many things in just that line. It’s a stark reminder of the horror they faced that night, and how no matter how much time goes by after the fact, it will always be a reminder of the hatred that is still carried out in the world today.

One of the more light-hearted yet still intriguing pieces involves something we can all relate to: shows. In William James “You’re Sixteen and You’ve Just Come Home from a Hardcore Show,” he compares a first-time show experience to that of a rite of passage. The tiredness is a baptism, and everything one would see and feel during their first show is an awakening of the life music injects into you. As James says, “You know that you’re as holy as heaven ever intended you to be,” and for the teenager that’s just survived their first pit, they’d have to agree with him.

Overall, this collection is great. It’s a perfect combination of pieces and stories for anyone wanting to read slam poetry, whether a beginner or seasoned veteran. From the topics, the passion felt throughout the pages, to the live accounts of those who’ve breathed the Pittsburgh slam air, it puts the perfect spotlight on the community. As Jesse Welch states of all Pittsburgh slam residents, “We write because we need it. We listen because it gives us life. We come every week we can get off work, or get a babysitter, and worship at the altar of our microphone. Come to church with us. The doors are open.”

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