Finding Voices Through Slam

Bi-Co students shared stories and poems at the “Crossing Borders” event, which showcased stories and poems created in workshops as well as open-mic performances.

Over a dozen Haverford and Bryn Mawr students took the microphone last month at the first ever “Crossing Borders” show. Following two separate workshops for poetry and storytelling, Bi-Co community members got the chance to share their work in front of their peers in a performance that included both rehearsed works and unprepared open-mic performances. Philadelphian slam poet Jacob Winterstein, co-founder of the Philly Pigeon Poetry Slam who has competed at the National Poetry Slam and Individual World Poetry Slam, hosted the event and acted as emcee.

Bryn Mawr’s Wyndham Alumnae House provided a warm space that empowered performers to find their voices. The show was organized by the Office of Academic Resource’s (OAR) Graduate Assistant Charlie Bruce BMC ’16 alongside Nimisha Ladva, visiting assistant professor in the Writing Program, First Person Arts StorySlam winner, and oral communication and public speaking specialist in the Writing Center’s Mark and Lillian Shapiro Speaking Initiative, and Inés Arribas, senior lecturer of Spanish at Bryn Mawr. Prior to the performance, students brainstormed ideas in storytelling and poetry workshops, led by Ladva and Arribas, respectively. Bruce, who formerly worked with the RISK! storytelling podcast in New York, provided additional workshopping for students leading up to the performance.

“The power of art is that is allows us to understand the human experience beyond normal words and normal language,” said Bruce. “Through storytelling and through poetry, we can become a better interconnected community by listening to and understanding the experiences of people who do not share the same experiences as we do.”

Community building was, in part, the goal of the event. Ladva applied for a Brainstorming Grant from the Mellon Tri-College Faculty Forum last year to incorporate storytelling and poetry slam into the classroom and community in order to further faculty development around oral communication. Though she didn’t expect to use the grant to establish an outlet for student performance so quickly, she, Arribas, and Bruce quickly brought the workshops and performance together.

“We seem to be in a historical moment where civic discourse is becoming difficult,” said Ladva. “Just creating spaces where voices can be heard, and, in the Quaker sense, creating a space that is held for that to happen seemed fruitful.”

Ladva and Arribas first met in February when Ladva wanted to draw from Arribas’s slam poetry pedagogy that she uses to teach Spanish in the classroom. Around the same time, Bruce reached out to Ladva to build off of conversations Ladva had last summer with the OAR about planning a storytelling event. (Coincidentally, Ladva was Bruce’s thesis advisor.) The result of that perfect storm of planning was the two workshops and one performance event that allowed students to write, rehearse, and perform their work, or simply spontaneously decide to perform.

I didn’t expect to participate in the event at all. It was only after listening to my peers who participated that I became inspired,” said Kerry Rodriguez ’18, who had never performed at a slam, but shared an improvised short story. While most other student work was about crossing borders, Rodriguez spoke about a border that could never be crossed between he and his mother, who had different life experiences growing up in El Salvador.

“I was surprised to hear that many audience members could relate and empathize with my experiences as a first-generation student, especially one faculty member who spoke to me after the event and said she still feels this separation between her and her parents who immigrated to the United States,” he said.

Alongside Arribas and Ladva’s workshops, students like Marina Kheyfets ’21 appreciated working with Bruce in the days leading up to the performance to continue tinkering with the details of writing and performing.

“Writing is only half the work,” said Kheyfets. “Tone and volume add so much to the piece. Also, a poem is never complete. You can always make it better.”

Though Bruce will move on next year to study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, Arribas and Ladva hope to build on the pilot event’s success. In concordance with Ladva’s grant, the two hope to bring faculty and staff into the connective possibilities that story and poetry slam have to offer.

“We take poetry way too seriously,” said Arribas. “Students are usually afraid of poetry because they believe it belongs to those realms of the elite and the untouchable… [but] poetry is an inner voice.”

Even more powerful than finding one’s inner voice is sharing it alongside others.

“I think,” said Ladva. “We were really able to create a space where people were able to have an experience together.”

Photos by Claire Blood-Cheney ’20.