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Crashing Cultural Waves Meet on 16th Street

"Poets who leapt off of tall buildings and flew and fell in swoops of feelings until they and we came to a crash at the foot of their history."



If you have never seen a spoken-word slam poetry competition, prepare for a no-holds-barred emotion-laden physically intense three minute by three minute exegesis on the pain and joy of being human. Conversely, if you have never been inside a foreign embassy in Washington, DC, prepare for a beautifully decorated early 20th century home filled with dignified officials bustling about on unfamiliar tasks, unfailingly polite and never unaware of their diplomatic role. Mix the two of these together - slam poetry and embassies - and you have night to never forget.


The Cuban delegation to Washington (with whom I have extended contact for the last year) is warm, charming, and very professional. Finding themselves in Washington, this particular collection of diplomats has been eager to connect culturally with this area - and have been so successful that the popular Busboys and Poets restaurant group has created events and tours to broaden American exposure to our Caribbean neighbor. One component of this relationship has been to bring activities to the embassy itself, high up on 16th Street, including a wildly successful poetry slam. Held last Thursday, the slam was the culmination of a community-wide competition, with the six finalists vying for an all-expenses paid trip to Havana in early February. Since I am going on that trip as well, I have a vested interest in knowing who my traveling companions might be and thus, Erin and I presented ourselves at the Embassy that evening.


The Cuban Embassy is dignity personified. Uncharacteristically, I can’t remember who owned the mansion before the Cubans, but it must have been built initially with the current use in mind. The competition was up a sweeping staircase in a ballroom - high ceilinged, heavy crown molding, large curtained windows. The embassy staff - women and men in suits and smiles - graciously welcomed this overwhelmed crowd of Washingtonians who filled their hall. The assembled poetic patrons could not have been more representative of this glorious city - dressed up couples, young men and women in fashionable colors, old heads who have seen it all. The palpable buzz anticipated the upcoming slam. Almost everyone knew someone - rushing up to hug, to talk excitedly about whatever, to be glad to gather once again for some cultural juice. I wondered if I could tell who were the actual poets competing. Not wanting to fall into the trap of stereotyping, I realized that anyone here - suits, t-shirts, tuxes - could be a poet. Thus is Washington not the obvious place - the surprises are endless. And then, after the initial remarks, the competition began.


It is impossible to capture the words and the heat of the artists in text. Six different poets worked 3-minute gigs for two rounds - randomly selected, they performed with vigor in the face of the five judges who would determine their fate. The poet is called to the front - they emerge from the seats or from along the jammed walls - and takes center stage. I could see them gather their thoughts and their emotions with a silent pause and some inner reflection. And then they let their poems run free. There were quiet words that slowly rolled together and built to emotional climaxes. Poets who leapt off of tall buildings and flew and fell in swoops of feelings until they and we came to a crash at the foot of their history. Lives and childhoods and relationships were exposed and explored. Recurrently, our social and cultural history of pain and struggle, some of it shared, some of it revealed, thematically bound these young and young-ish poets together. The room was electrified - poets and audience tied together in a journey that at each juncture made us catch our breath in anticipation. We rode along, reveling in their revelations.


At the back of the room and no less moved, stood the embassy staff. A picture I took of them over my shoulder sees them attending to the poetry. I wondered more than once what they thought of what they were witnessing. They were here in the United States - surely considered a good diplomatic post - ambassadors, deputy chiefs, first secretaries, office staff, security, spouses and they were all gathered with the subject of their tour: American citizens. How did this professional group see what was going on in front of them? There, on the other side of the room, hearts and souls were being poured out of human vessels. Surely, this glamorous space had never seen the likes of a poetry slam, all feeling and story and blood and tears and sweat. These walls had more likely heard lively Cuban piano music, impassioned retellings of historic events, welcomes and farewells, the click of shoes on the dance floor. What of this slam, this powerful sharing?


When it was all over and the deserving winner was gifted with a seat on the upcoming trip to Cuba, the room settled into a more traditional diplomatic mode. Rum and wine and food competed with conversation in filling the room with murmurs of sound. Diplomats, freed from their position in the back of the room were able to mingle with their guests and, on occasion, each other. Did they discuss the poetry slam? Is there a Cuban equivalent to this outpouring of words? Of course, Cuba has a rich poetic culture and a musical existence needing to be heard to be believed. But what about poetry slams?


I wonder if I wandered through smaller cafes in the evening in Havana or Cienfuegos or Trinidad, would I pass a doorway spilling with light and, looking in, see a poet on makeshift stage pouring out their heart about their love, pain, struggle? It is hard to know in a structured visit to Cuba whether these moments are out there, somewhere, sometime. What I do know is a very good spoken word poet will get off the plane in Havana in a month’s time and will, I believe, get the chance to show her work to the Cuban people, and she will electrify and ignite them like she did us, sitting in that formal room, riveted to the chairs by sheer emotion. It will indeed be good diplomacy.



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