Poetry Slam and Academia: Mutual or Mutually Exclusive?

I won my first poetry slam in January of 2011. I was sixteen and for the next three days I felt like a warrior princess. I was a champion of words, and for the first time ever high school couldn’t keep me down. I spent about six years flirting with Albuquerque’s poetry slam community. I was a member of three city teams, and in 2013 one of those teams placed fourth in the world. Poetry slam gave me the opportunity to travel the United States. I saw cities and met beautiful and powerful writers from all over the world. My first engagement with creative writing was as far outside the sphere of academia as possible. I came to the University of New Mexico with a very particular understanding of what it meant to be a poet or a writer. It meant community. It meant Saturday workshops and summers spent memorizing poems with your friends. It meant family.

I took English 224, the introduction to creative writing, during my freshman year at the University. On the first day of class, after everyone else gave boring and predictable “interesting facts about themselves” I announced that I was a slam poet. I spent the rest of the semester arguing with my instructor about the merits of performance poetry, and I learned my lesson. Slam and creative writing in academia are mutually exclusive, and if I wanted to study writing at the university level, I had to make slam into my dirty secret.

I’m currently in my fourth and final year at UNM. In the time that I’ve spent here I changed my major three times, cut all my hair off twice and moved once. Things change. Things fall apart. I don’t discuss performance poetry with my instructors, particularly in the English department. I’m done fighting about how and when and in what fashions we should write. Poetry slam and the university offer very different experiences for writers. For me, the most important aspect of poetry slam was always community. Poetry slam was a safe place to grow and express myself. At UNM I’ve begun to focus my work. I’m developing my voice and learning to express my thoughts carefully through fiction.

I feel it is important not to inhibit ourselves as writers. Often we decide, or let others decide for us, what we can and cannot write. We pick a medium and stick to it. Engaging with local communities of writers and artists is an easy way to move outside of our comfort zones. For me this means writing within academia while maintaining my ties to the slam poetry community. Writing at the university level allows me to shape my craft, while competing in poetry slams makes me feel like a warrior princess. Both are important and both are necessary.

Emily Bjustrom is a fourth year English major at UNM. She likes writing stories and blog posts. Photo by Roberto Reyes