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Slamming the Dream

Off Campus | November 3, 2014

Upon entering the Trident Bookstore and Cafè, the bustle of Newbury Street seems to fade as a comforting nest of books promises an evening of storytelling. Up a flight a stairs, in a corner facing the Boston skyline, is a café that vibrates with the energy of an excited crowd of twenty writers and listeners alike. The murmur of conversation quiets as the event coordinators, Tony Toledo and Norah Dooley, reach the stage.

“Who here has never been to a story slam?” Toledo asks the crowd. Several hands go up. Toledo smiles broadly at the newcomers and explains the way a story slam competition works. The theme is “Beginners Luck,” and ten performers will share their 5-minute stories relating to this topic while the audience judges them on their delivery, content and overall quality of the story. A nervous jitter of anticipation spreads across the room, but the warm and welcoming crowd soothes the nerves of the performers. This is a safe space for honesty and openness.

Slam poetry, the better-known predecessor of the story slam, began in Chicago in the 1980s and quickly spread across the nation. Story slam, on the other hand, originated more than a decade later in 1997 with The Moth, a non-profit organization that strives to spread the art of live, first person storytelling.

“For years and years, people would gather in kitchens, on porches, under the old oak tree, to entertain each other with stories,” Toledo explains. “First radio, then TV, then the internet took over that role. The funny thing is that those mediums are just one way. Story slams are a way to bring us back together.”

Stories not only create entertainment, but human connection. In this growing age of virtual interactions it’s easy to get lost behind screens and impersonal text messages. These forms of communication cannot compare to the real experience of sharing a story—a snapshot of your life—with someone face to face.

In a way, story slams are a grassroots tradition that inherently work to combat a growing disconnect between people caused by the rise of a digital age in America. Technological innovations are making it easier for us to withdraw to a more solitary world. With the easy accessibility of the Internet and social media interactions, we become cocooned in self-imposed isolation from human contact.

“In our little house in Beverly, we have a sun porch,” remarks Toledo. “When my wife and I sit there and sip lemonade, we talk to our neighbors as they go by. Sitting on a porch means I am opening myself up to my greater neighborhood. When I sit at a deck in the back yard, I am saying I don’t want to talk to you; I just want to be alone.  Being alone does not draw stories out.”

The United States is built on the rich exchange of stories, ones that are shared through generations and have helped us make sense of our nation’s identity. Storytelling has helped individuals in our diverse population express discontent, uncertainty, and anger with injustice. More specifically, storytelling has allowed minorities to voice their frustrations and define their identities on their own terms Through this cathartic, shared experience, all kinds of people are brought together to better understand the perspectives and struggles of others. Storytelling enables individual voices to wage a war against a disengaged society.

While slam performances have an established presence within the Boston community, the Tufts community also shares an appreciation for the art form.

“What makes slam poetry slam poetry is that it has to contain a social commentary. Its roots are the same as rap in the 1970s, it is meant as a means of resistance and a call to action,” explains sophomore and active slam poet on and off campus Andie Brent. Her slam poetry team at home, Denver Minor Disturbance, is a non profit-created to give the youth an outlet of expression.

“It’s to give youth a voice to express their own personal experiences and disillusionment with the societal factors that caused them to live in a particular way. Without this outlet, they wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to express themselves in this way,” she says.

Sophomore and spoken word performer on campus Blaine Dzwonczyk believes that slam poetry and storytelling are ways that people can work out the “beautiful and painful parts of our lives and our world.”

“It’s a space where the subversive is celebrated and validated. In this way, slam and spoken word are indebted to the historical traditions of activist art and performance that came before,” Dzwonczyk says.

Dzwonczyk explains that slam performances can be cathartic, but also galvanizing.

“Poetry, as a political art form, asks people to think about themselves, their lives, and their world in different ways – and it pushes them to act in new ways, too. Spoken word, at its best, validates marginalized experiences and revolutionary struggles. So while it serves a purpose in creating a space to vent about pain, in expressing that pain, spoken word artists are also asking their audiences to look deeper at what hurts us most, and where we can best fight those structures,” she says.

In Trident café, the evening progresses and stories continue to unfold. Mike, a Texan in his mid-thirties, tells the audience of his experience as a soldier in Afghanistan, and explains the fear he felt when a grenade exploded right next to him in his stationed platoon. Liz, a soft-spoken sophomore in college, talks about her time in a homestead Vermont farm where an old hippy couple taught her to decapitate chickens. The amalgamation of distinct tales, some light and humorous, others more profound, some well expressed and others more incoherently sputtered, are all tied together through this shared experience, and suddenly this group of strangers is connected.

“It was a little nerve-wracking, knowing everyone is watching you,” Maddie Ching admits, a senior at Tufts and newbie story slammer on campus. “But as soon as I started talking, I relaxed, and I felt like the audience members were my friends. I was simply telling them an interesting story.”

Toledo, the event coordinator, emphasizes that story telling is a means of inspiring empathy. “I look more at storytelling as filling in my heart,” he says. “After hosting Speak Up Spoken Word Open Mic in Lynn, Massachusetts for the last six years, I see that when we listen to each other, we like each other more, we care more.”

As the night closes in and the last speaker’s voice fades away, the audience delivers its final judgment and the winners are announced. Standing up from my corner seat, I take in the moment and smile. Something about the vibrant, candid atmosphere and the collective experience has resonated within me and has left me with the desire to talk and share, to reach out to the person next to me and tell them the first story that comes to mind. As I start making my way down the winding stairs, I manage to catch a private moment with Tony and ask him my final question: “What does storytelling mean to you?”

Toledo smiles. “Storytelling means we are human,” he says. “Storytelling means we are connecting with each other. Storytelling means what you have to say is important and I want to hear it. Storytelling means what I have to say is the same. Storytelling builds bridges. Storytelling repairs broken hearts. Storytelling is laughter and tears and sighs all rolled into one.”

Brent, too, emphasizes the communal experience of slam poetry and storytelling.

“It’s a great outlet, and the point of audience participation and interaction is to maintain this goal of inspiring others to act, to write in a way that expresses a common human experience, not just writing something flowery for the sake of art,” she says. “It’s very much a community.”