This will be ugly. But there is nothing pretty about rape, and I will not sugarcoat a turd if something smells rotten in Denmark.
I have written a few times (here and here) about my involvement with the Southern Fried Poetry Slam and my poetry troupe, Black on Black Rhyme (BOBR). I’ve been involved with spoken word since 2004. Even from the periphery, I care deeply about this community. I have made real friends in poetry groups, men and women who have held my child, stood with me at my wedding, wiped my tears, fed me, blessed me, loved me. They are my village.
But we are not a perfect community, for all we preach onstage. In 2011, I helped BOBR organize Southern Fried in Atlanta; the event was our baby. I was horrified to learn that a sexual assault of a female poet by a male poet allegedly occurred at the host hotel. I was dismayed that nothing (to my knowledge) came of the Facebook post detailing her assault. I did nothing. I carry that.
This past weekend, the National Poetry Slam held its annual festival in Boston. My joy over Southern Fried team Slam New Orleans’ win is overshadowed by the ensuing controversy.
Apparently, a reputed rapist and the slam team he coaches advanced to NPS Finals and were met with boos and hisses when they took the stage on Sunday night. The slam community is angry and divided over this, for different reasons. I see one underlying major issue:
Either slam provides a fail safe to protect its members, or we do not accept everyone.
Poetry communities can be the most inclusive groups of people on the planet, but broad acceptance is inherently precarious. The Codes of Conduct only do so much. Without blacklisting predators, or vetting suspected ones, slam organizers risk endangering innocent people.
I wonder why the poet in question was allowed to compete with reports of multiple women assaulted and others fearful to be in his mere presence. It should never have gotten to “Boo, hiss,” from an audience with emotional wounds that severe.
In pondering preemptive bans, I think of NFL prospect Brian Banks, who was wrongfully convicted of rape and served time in prison based on a lie. I will not parse the statistics of rape; you can see that here:
However, I also wonder what open mics would look like if we tossed out all the former criminals. What redemption is there?
I want my biological family to not fear for my safety when I am among my poetry family. I have seen organizations tolerate serial verbal abusers, liars and thieves, and drunk violent poets for the sake of…what? Business arrangements? Registration fees?
Regardless of its inclusivity, organizers of slam poetry must protect their poets and stand against rapists, period. Upon report, research, rebuke, refuse entry.
We need to maintain safe spaces both onstage and offstage, and walk the activism we spit about. Fear should have no home at a poetry slam.
Finally, I say this with love: If women’s voices are only heard when we are splayed open and shouting from a platform, then spoken word as a community has failed to say anything of value.