Poetry in performance
Buffalo’s slam poets are competing nationwide
Poets Megan Kemple and Brandon Williamson
Photos by kc kratt
Poetry is a force to be reckoned with in Buffalo. Writers who live here have good access to outlets where they can read, tell, or act out their stories. Regular poetry events include Ground and Sky, a monthly low-key reading at Rust Belt Books; Pure Ink Poetry, which features monthly poetry slams and open mics at the Gypsy Parlor; Poets Storm, Nietzsche’s monthly poetry event; and many more. There are plenty of opportunities to get out, meet local poets, and express your own creative energies. It doesn’t need to stop in Western New York, either; many locally based writers have gone on to perform their work across the United States.
In honor of National Poetry Month, the following interviews feature four local poets who have competed in the National Poetry Slam.
Pure Ink Poetry founder Brandon Williamson, with the help of assistant director Bianca McGraw, is a major figure in the resurgence of slam poetry in Buffalo. As the only monthly poetry slam in the city, Pure Ink is nationally certified by Poetry Slam Inc. An open mic happens every second Sunday, and a slam happens every fourth Sunday; both series take place at the Gypsy Parlor.
Williamson and McGraw have also led a poetry workshop for prison guards and staff focusing on the collaboration of diversity, micro aggressions, and creativity at Gowanda Correctional facility.
When I reach the end of this life, Let my body serve as evidence. That I have given everything. I’ve left it all in this court. That I have not allowed life to coarse through my veins stinging with the icy chill of regrets and good intentions while trying to pay me life support. I want life to Leave me a mess, one that my loved ones don’t feel responsible for, so they discover me covered in mold. I’ll convince you that there is beauty in the greenery of growing old. When my bones ache, Let them. They sing arias in languages they’ve never called their own. They’ll carve my legend like Excalibur in each Rosetta stone. When my mind is lost, let me go, let me sail away into the lines of a poem, wherever my mind goes, know that I’ll consider it home. If my lungs fail, it will not be the first time. I’ve lost count of breathless moments full of love and punch lines, thrills and red wine, each lost breath is reflective of the mountains I’ve climbed. When mountains form across the desert of my skin. Do not consider them wrinkles. They are simply lifelines walking a bit too close to deadlines (protecting the liquid fire that still burns within my eyes) When my eyes revoke me of my vision, know that they have cried in the presence of a beautiful sunrise, and sunset. they have witnessed the majesty of you and you in this moment. And I’m proud to have been a part of that. When you see, my hands, brittle, broken branches of a lifeless tree. know that they have planted seeds, constructed bridges to build communities, I hope that is the legacy I leave. When my heart stops, know that with its last beat it kept our rhythm. Our same two step american slow dance, the African romance drumming through our blood. Now they stand still for us. They gel together like a candlelight vigil haunting the memories of those we love. When the sound of silence is deafening in my ears, it’s because they’ve heard enough. And if I should die, know that i have lived. Know that I’ve given this body all that I have to give. When I reach the end of this life, I don’t want enough energy to feel like i have another life left to live. That I’ve spent it all on this one. That would be an honorable death, until then with each breath, I will give it absolutely everything until I have nothing left.
How did you start writing?
I wrote my first performance poem in college. There was a scholarship that was available called the Rosa Parks Scholarship. I was hanging out in my girlfriend’s dorm room at the time, and she was painting for the scholarship. I figured I’d try to write a poem that I could perform, using my theater experience. So I wrote a poem and ended up winning the scholarship. That was my first slam poem.
Why did you start Pure Ink?
I felt there was a void in the poetry community. A few years ago, there was an open mic that happened every single Tuesday at Em Tea Coffee Cup on the East Side. They announced that they were closing the open mic. At that time, it was a big place for performance poetry on both the East Side and Buffalo in general. I have always been an advocate of “be the change you want to see.” I wanted to fill the void, but I didn’t want to do an open mic. There are a lot of open mics all around, so I wanted to do something a little different with a little extra edge to it—something fun. I find competition fun, so I decided to start a slam. I put together the event itself, went to a couple of places, and, eventually, Merge opened their doors to us and we went from there.
Did you expect Pure Ink to grow as big as it did?
We’ve grown much larger and faster than I anticipated. My initial goal was for it to just be a slam. I just wanted to be that one concrete, staple event. From there, a couple of groups have spawned from it. The Living Poets Society came together from Pure Ink and started doing a showcase, and then a couple of other organizations started. Everything just blew up really quickly.
A big part of that was Bianca. She came in with the business idea and trying new things. As much as I was reluctant and pulling back, she slowly talked me into it, and we’ve grown into the brand we’ve become today. We have an office at the Tri-Main Building and we do workshops around Western New York. I’ve stopped putting a cap on how big I want it to be and I’m ready to let it grow and build to be what it needs to be while still staying within our means.
How does slamming differ from other poetry events?
The element of competition can be a double-edged sword. Slam forces your audience to listen. It’s a competition; you’re being judged by five random members of the audience, so they have to listen. At an open mic, you can have conversations, but if you hear someone starting a conversation during a slam while a poem is going on, the dagger eyes will start. I like that element of it. It forces audience participation throughout the entire experience.
Megan Kemple, a poet and theatrical performer, started writing when she was a teenager, and is now a teaching artist at the Just Buffalo Literary Center. She has combined her poetry and theatrical skills to produce collaborative performances.
My identity exists in extremes: insatiably nomadic, fiercely loyal, torn between severe PTSD and a savage independence, Southern-Baptist bred black sheep atheist Army Brat. I am the intersection of poverty and privilege, victim and survivor and sinner. I am a spoke in the wheel of violence that has been turning for generations, the one rolling its way down every street in this country. I come from generations of slave owners and imperialists, addicts and abusers. I come from bad luck and tragedy, secrets and estrangements. I believe in the Old Gods, in hedonism as worship, in the Earth as magic, in Maenads and Bacchus. I believe in nostalgia, but only in closed boxes, and in surgical extraction of meaning from experience. I believe if the pendulum swings this far to the dark side, it must be in preparation for something good, but don’t tell anyone I’m an optimist. I believe in empathy as the cure and the truth as oxygen. I believe in pulling back the Emerald Curtain and breaking our cogs out of the machine. I believe that beauty lies in contradictions and pluralities,
in the distance between your best and your worst. I am a woman who sees much, but seldom stays, who loves infinitely and ferociously, but rarely, knuckles white from holding onto everything in one hand and nothing in the other.
What came first, theater or poetry?
Theater came first. I had started writing short stories and then got into poetry in seventh grade in typical angsty teenager fashion. I had everything in a binder, and one day my mom found it. She was very upset and said “You should read Sylvia Plath,” and then she wouldn’t talk to me for weeks because they were mostly about her. After that, I kind of took a step away from poetry and threw myself into theater. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I had a professor who got me back into poetry.
But theater is still important?
Absolutely. When I do my written work, it doesn’t feel complete to me. I love getting my words down on paper, and getting them printed is awesome, but it’s not fulfilling for me. What I get a kick out of is performing my words for other people. In spoken word, I try to take my words as a jumping off point. I create my own projects and try to marry that with dance and other theatrical elements. Acting is always a huge part of how I deliver my poems. For me, it’s very fluid.
Your poem, “Brock Turner,” was very powerful. That must have taken a lot of strength. How did you get into the mental place to prepare yourself to perform it?
It’s been quite a process. When I first wrote that poem, I thought it would never see the light of day. It was something that I wrote to get myself out of that headspace. I showed it to my mentor, who immediately said, “You need to do this.” He helped me get the strength to say it the first time. Then the first time that I said it, immediately after that, a bunch of people would come up to and thank me for saying that, or say “me too.” It created a connection. The more times that I did it, the more times that started to fuel to me. Now when I do that poem, instead of it coming from a place of me needing to tell my story, it comes more from a place where I need to tell this story because other people need to be heard as well. Spoken word is a great platform to tell your truth.
Author, teacher, and poet Ben Brindise represented Buffalo in the National Poetry Slam in 2015 and 2016. He has published three books and cowrote another book with fellow poet Justin Karcher. He instructs writing workshops at the Just Buffalo Literary Center and North Park Academy. His poems have been published in several journals, including Heroin Chic and Trailer Park Quarterly.
I Can’t Promise it Gets Better
when I was young your mother
read me scary stories
until I was sure your house was haunted
I started seeing ghosts around every corner
couldn’t go upstairs alone
asked why they all looked like Uncle Bill
sometimes I think we are haunted
by the future
more than we ever could be by the past
if time really is a flat disc then our fathers
were always dead
and are still alive with tackle boxes and fishing poles
and we were never grieving in the basement
only playing cards
and are still grieving into beer cans and bonfire smoke
and you are still my younger cousin with comic books
whose sinking boat I want to patch
I can’t promise it gets better
But I can promise to be there when you need
to help you turn the page
to be ready for what comes next
You received a lot of recognition from your chapbook, Rotten Kid. What you were trying to achieve by publishing the book?
I had been writing for a while in slam poetry. My friend Tom told me I had a series of pieces that deal with the same topic. He said there was this archetypal character in all of them that I termed, based on the title of one of my poems, Rotten Kid. He suggested I see what that looks like together. So, I took that advice to heart, and I realized there is actually a pretty good line tying them together.
I never wanted to put a book of poems together just for the sake of doing it, but I decided to put it out, and I got way more of a reception for it than I ever expected.
Have you set a standard for yourself now that you’ve published Rotten Kid?
It’s weird. I have this attraction to doing what other people would term as their experimental projects as my main projects. Rotten Kid was a weird book because it had six poems in one half of the book and two short stories in the other half. It’s not typical for a poet’s first collection to come out like that. The next book I did is the one I cowrote with Justin Karcher. It’s a dual, full-length collection; each of us wrote half the poems. And that, again, is not typically a first or second collection that you put out as a poet.
What first moved you to write poetry?
I took poetry classes when I went to Medaille. I appreciated it, and I liked the terms of language and the different things it did, but I never really gravitated to it. It wasn’t until I happened to walk in at a random Pure Ink Poetry Slam in 2013 that I saw poetry presented in a way I’d never seen it before.
I had never considered myself a poet, but I wrote some really bad slam poems, and, over time, I wrote slightly better slam poems. And it just went from there. Now my attention has shifted to literary page poetry. I started in one place, went to another, and now I came back to where I started with a completely different view.
How do you compare your performance voice to your writing voice?
I have only recently been able to make a distinction between the two. I was never a good public speaker, but when I was able to do slam, I wasn’t really speaking, I was just reciting a memorized piece that I had. There was less fear in it, because I knew what I was saying.
Now that I’ve been working with different kinds of forms, writing shorter poems, writing poems that are less dependent on movement and action and more dependent on word choice, I’ve started to develop a different way of reading. Now, I’m not just doing what I know works; I’m trying new things more consistently.
Marquis Burton, aka “Ten Thousand,” is a slam poet currently working on bringing the largest slam in the United States to Buffalo on May 12. The goal: twenty-five poets from all over the country competing for $3,000, divided into first, second, and third places. According to Burton, this will be the largest prize money ever for a poetry slam.
Burton started writing poetry when he was fourteen, after his grandmother passed away. Around that same time, he moved from the inner city to the suburbs, and felt like he was an outcast. The emotional and cultural change inspired him to write. Currently, Burton competes in local and national slams and teaches writing workshops throughout the city.
I don’t know what to say
I didn’t know how I was to feel
in those moments.
So I felt *Numb*
I felt like it was a fairytale or a nightmare
Felt like it was something not real
Until it started sinking in
Until I held my tears trapped for far too long
Because I can still remember the awkward
I still remember the joy that chiseled through
all your dark moments.
When life seems to beat you down as you showed
people that there’s beauty in every process they been
I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel
I wasn’t close as many in this room
but I was close enough to see how
pain can be worn on a black girl face
how it can be broken and destroyed
in so many ways.
But I said nothing
Every time we have those
You were the focal point in it
You were the joy that brought us together
You were that thing that made us feel that life
matter in those moments.
When we could still remember by in 2008
those moments when we could barely stand
each other but now when we get together it’s
always a celebration.
There’s always a party inside our language
and the way we present it.
I didn’t know how to tell this story
didn’t know how I am to feel
So I didn’t cry
I didn’t cry until a Friday afternoon
in the middle of my work day
my tears poured.
My tears poured for
the memories and the moments
that I stroked letters into those keys,
where I sent you messages but delete them
Because I didn’t know where my place inside those moments
Was I stretching too far?
See I didn’t know what love and the idea of what it was
I saw the struggle in your face
but I saw the beauty of how you
took that struggle and turn it into
Picasso paintings worth fighting for.
You showed me that love is not pretty,
love can complicated
but as long as you have open arms
and an open heart you are able to embrace
what it is.
I didn’t know how I was to feel
Didn’t know how to process what it felt never
be able to see that smile or hear those awkward
conversations that they shared around me.
Didn’t know how I would feel in that moment until it hit me
that someone I spent so much time with will no longer be here
Someone I tried to figure out
tried to have a level of closeness
I wonder if I tried enough
Did I stretch an arm enough?
Did I show enough joy and pain?
Did I show her my own battle scar to let her know we are all
broken pieces trying to figure out the perfection in this life.
We are all trying to glue together just enough of us just to exist.
I don’t know what I am suppose to say in these moments
so I turn Numb,
I feel blah,
I feel like every part of me is a melt pot of gray
I am trying to figure out am I suppose cry hard
Suppose to hold back
Suppose to be there for the ones that feel the
trauma at the core of the roots
So I will be strong
I be strong and swallow my tears and
I will cry,
I will cry,
I will cry to the top of my lungs
To let you know I will miss you
I will miss those moments that I even didn’t understand
when I was still trying to filter out who I was
I miss those moments we embraced while enjoying
what it is to be alive and exist in this moment
So I will cry
I will wipe my tears
I will show that you left a impact in me
that I can’t full understand yet.
I will tell you that you are amazing in ways
that even we didn’t understand in the moment.
It’s something blessed
There something about being an angel
sent from some place
that makes you not understood by everyone
until you spread your wings and fly home.
They finally realized
how much you embraced their life,
how much you wrapped around their existence,
how much you made them feel alive inside their flesh
So I will cry in hope you can hear
and the way I am breaking my words and back
to show that we miss you.
We still love the way you made perfection
in the darkest of our days
You made us feel like our flesh was burnt
alive in enjoy not burnt in destruction.
You showed us that we are as amazing
as God made us to be.
So I will cry to let you know that you
were far more than a person to me.
You were a blessing inside the flesh of humans.
You are a breath that make us keep on breathing.
You are a light that made us feel alive.
We will miss you for all that you have given us
We will wish you that were here.
Thank you for the moments because
those seconds made us feel alive
How did you go from being a high school poet to traveling around the US performing in slams?
I think the first stepping stone was when I made the national team back in 2008. I made Nickel City National Team. Nickel City was the first nationally qualified slam organization in Buffalo. It ran out of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and was funded by Just Buffalo back then. We competed in Madison, Wisconsin. People there started a team called “Uncommon Sense,” and we started to travel. It was all about taking that leap. At some points in life, when you’ve reached a certain level, it doesn’t matter how good you are. This isn’t about fame. You want to experience more.
Was being the face of Buffalo’s poetry community a lot of pressure to take on?
It felt good. It felt free to have that exposure. But at the same time, I didn’t really think of the representation of Buffalo. I just thought I was representing me and who I am. All I wanted to do was give people hope, and that’s my biggest thing. I didn’t think of it as Buffalo until I started organizing. Even taking on that pressure, I just wanted to tell my story.
What inspires you to write?
Knowing how it feels to be silenced. Knowing how it feels to feel like your voice is not being heard. My niece inspires me. Driving in the snow inspires me. I try to find inspiration in a lot of things. Battling with my own lows and highs, my own sadness and loneliness and fear of the choices I made. I’ve always been inspired and able to turn things in an inspirational way, so I’d say pretty much everything. The pain of my past. The joy of my future. Realizing the power I do have with my words.
What are some essential tools a poet needs to write?
I would say you have to figure out what motivates you to write. That’s the number one tool. Are you writing to lift the burden off your chest? Are you writing to draw attention to an issue? Are you writing because you’re fed up? What does writing do for you? The second thing would be is: figure out what are you writing. Really dive into what types of writing are out there. The biggest thing is, don’t limit yourself. Don’t be comfortable. Have a pad or your cell phone ready. Allow yourself to be you, allow yourself to record and speak. The other thing would be, find the time to write. Sometimes it can be in the middle of the classroom or at your job. Allow yourself to find the time to write, because you have to give yourself that. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t feel like you’re excelling the way you want to. If you want more out of an experience, figure out how could you achieve that, but don’t beat yourself up through the process.