SUNY Oneonta’s Big O’ Poetry Slam vs. Slam Poetry Founder Marc Smith

Cheyenne Dorsagno, Editor-in-Chief |

On April 12, six students represented SUNY Oneonta’s Big O’ Poetry Slam at The College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) in Chicago, taking 67th place out of 72 ranks and coming together in solidarity to oppose offensive poems read by the man who is regarded as founder of slam poetry, Marc Kelly Smith.

“I am really proud of us and our writing!” said Katie Hebert of herself and her other teammates – Gabe Membreno, Jillian Moczara, Fia Garry, Chandler Aldrich, and Princeton Smith. “I remember my therapist making me get a journal. I remember being at Lincoln Center once and going to a very empty open mic, butchering some cliché poem I wrote. I remember finding home in the art form that is poetry … I am inspired and grateful to have been a part of such an amazing space, and I am grateful for this growth I have had as a writer and performer and human being.”

While there was a lot to appreciate about CUPSI 2017, there were also some unexpected challenges. Slam poetry has long been a platform for all peoples, for any attempt to expose sociopolitical injustice and to share experiences of marginalization.

“I was in the position of having just met Marc Smith a few weeks ago when he visited SUNY Oneonta, so I was excited to see him perform again,” said sophomore Gabe Membreno. “I didn’t react initially to the poems as I usually have to let them sit regardless, but I knew once I saw so many people stand and literally turn their backs to him that the poems were offensive. I quickly realized what the situation entailed and that was this white man performing poetry that took the experiences of marginalized people of color and tried to commiserate with them without offering anything.”

Slam poetry is often confessional, meaning that the narrator and the speaker of the poem are often viewed as one in the same. One poem Smith read was “Old White Guy Whitey,” detailing an experience in which Smith was called exactly that. Despite his pale complexion, Smith said that his skin was “closer to mud.” He described himself as “a sugar cube in someone’s joke/ responsible for a mountain of dark deeds/ different, I guess, from all the other colors.” While prejudice (note: not systematic racism) may exist against whites, Membreno explained that Smith does not put this experience in the context of white privilege, and he forfeits any responsibility for the marginalization of minorities today, instead saying that he is the one made to feel “different” and victimized.

Smith read another poem called “Detention Center,” in which he uses the repetition of the word “poppy,” a white-washed spelling of the Hispanic slang word “papi,” meaning father, to illustrate the hardships of the Hispanic community through one boy who has been separated from his dad.

The poem reads: “Our discussions are important. Our concern is real. But as we sip the black anger of our comfortable homes, milking the repression of our easy existence, stirring the sweet and sour soundings of our still free voice into teacup whirlpools of angst and depression, somewhere, in the third world, a man stands facing a concrete wall pounding his fist raw against the hopelessness.”

While this poem and another named “Speaksters” is sympathetic towards certain disadvantages and conflicts, these struggles are seemingly exploited, as they are put in the narrative frame of the “easiness,” the “too much freedom,” and the “groove after groove of poor me” of first world countries. In this context, the tragic inequality in foreign nations is used to undermine current social injustices in the U.S., perpetuating anti-millennial rhetoric and silencing American advocates.

Smith further comments on modern American society by describing those who “Drag their dumb souls along daily/ In drab little circles of no time gettin’ nowhere./ Not one minute/ For capital A Art/ Unlike fashion-hip celebrities/ From every ethnic dimension/ On the screens selling ‘realness’/ Products from stretch limousines.”

In this excerpt, Smith invalidates art that he perceives as “low culture,” accusing its creators of being shallow career worms. Smith seems to question the deservingness and authenticity of minority celebrities. This description erases those celebrities of color who earned their fame as well as proudly represent and give back to their communities, or other communities in need. He also implies that such celebrities are only famous because their skin color is a new fad used to fulfill a diversity quota.

According to one witness, Marrisa Modell, Smith “appropriated poetry from its true roots and has gotten wide credit for it, and then has continued to turn all of us in the audience into his story, ripping our dialogues away from us, misrepresenting them, and blaspheming our history.”

The audience was a diverse group of people, some being genderqueer, trans, of color, travelers from England or India, etc. Many were upset by the poetry, turning away from Smith, leaving the room, or walking towards him with their arms in an X.

Smith stopped at one point and remarked, “This is beautiful. Are you all done?”

Viewers returned the question: “Are you done?!”

Smith walked off of the stage. Smith has since posted these poems on his website under the title “The Poems that Got Me Silenced at the National College Slam,” again seeking sympathy and profiting off of the valid concerns of marginalized groups. The host, another cis white male, deflected any responsibility to address the situation, and said, “I’m just here to read the titles of the poems.”

Membreno concluded: “While the occurrences were awful, emotional, and even traumatic to some, the love and unity displayed after was extraordinary. As the only person of color on SUNY Oneonta’s team this year, I felt a great amount of anxiety as the situation unfolded. But as I went backstage to discuss the issue at hand with other POC representatives of other teams and gathered in a circle of appreciation and community, I was restored and I felt safe and loved … [POC poets were] showcasing their deep-rooted emotions [through their] unbelievable talent while reclaiming their space. [It] was simply beautiful.”

The poets went on with the show, disregarding the time limits, the judging system, and any filming by the audience members.

Modell stated, “We said fuck you to the institution and media which profits off of the emotional labor and sacrifices of poets who speak solely for the benefits of their communities and spend months and months going through a writing process, converting pain into power … As for me, I cannot imagine slam poetry will be the same … I don’t know what will happen, but I am so excited … Tonight, we had a revolution.”

Many poets expect this altercation to be the turning point of slam poetry. The Big O’ Poetry Slam proudly represented SUNY Oneonta. These poets exhibited their artistic talents – often used to address social injustice – before they challenged said injustice in a direct way by retaliating against slam poetry icon Marc Kelly Smith. While Smith may have made the movement mainstream, young poets did not accept his questionable rhetoric, thereby disproving the very accusations of complacency and inadequacy made against them in his texts, solidifying the power of slam poetry and these students’ earned positions in the field.

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