On People and Poetry

Alexandria Sisson (BA 2019), founder of the Slam Poetry Club. Credit: Bard College Berlin

Every Sunday evening at 8pm, when a hush has stolen itself over most of the BCB campus as students scramble to prepare for the week ahead, a motley crew of outspoken and observant personalities congregates in the W16 common room for an hour (or more) of poetry. If, on such a Sunday, you were to stand outside the walls between which the Slam Poetry Club takes place, you would hear more than the familiar scratch of pens against paper or the voices of tender and seasoned poets bravely sharing their naked words: you would hear unexpected laughter, shed and swallowed tears, hesitation and uncertainty, immediate acceptance, reciprocated kindness, and power reclaimed. If you were to listen extra closely, you might recognise amidst all these sounds that of the borders between people crumbling — and, if you were to want to walk in, you would be more than welcome to join.

Behind the Slam Poetry Club is a first-year student named Alexandria Sisson — a girl with a heart, personality, and voice so big you will probably hear her or hear of her before you see her.

“I’ve been writing poetry since I can remember,” she tells me as we sit in her dorm room in W16 after lunchtime. Rare autumnal sunlight has broken through the seemingly ever-present cloud cover to kiss the walls of the room upon which she has artfully pinned colourful postcards and careful sketches.

Alex is “the child of an immigrant from the Phillipines and a twenty year Air Force veteran from Connecticut.” She was born in Bavaria, but doesn’t remember it, lived for awhile in Arkansas, but doesn’t remember it, and has been living in Hawai’i since she was four. If you were to ask her what kind of clubs and sports she did in High School, you would soon realise she is some sort of superhuman. She lists for me that she did springboard diving for seven years, was a dancer, had a brief flirtation with cheerleading, has impressive martial arts abilities, was involved with MUN, Mock-trial, debate, and that, on top of everything, she began working as soon as she turned sixteen. In Junior year, she worked forty hours a week, and in Senior year she took on another job and worked fifty-two hours each week.   

“I went from class to sport to activity to job, and then I would skate home and I would sleep and I would do it all again — and I loved it!” She exclaims in earnest. On how she could possibly manage all this she later mentions, “my dad has always been into military regimens, so I’ve been raised to always have a routine for what I do and to set goals for myself.”

It was early on in her high-school career that she also became involved with slam poetry, “when a facilitator from Youth Speaks Hawai’i came to [her] school”. Youth Speaks Hawai’i is a program run in association with the non-profit organisation Pacific Tongues, which declares on the homepage of its website that part of its mission and vision is to “[cultivate] an active artistic Oceanic community of writers, spoken word performers, leaders, educators and students of all ages.” Alex modestly tells me that she tried spoken word when a workshop was offered at her school, found she was good at it, and “ended up captaining the team”. Her involvement with Pacific Tongues and slam poetry gave her the opportunity to compete with other inter-island artists and in the state final, where she qualified in the top four.

She laughingly admits that she is “a big fan of poetry”,

“The first time I realised the power of poetry was at my first slam ever. I did this piece on home violence and the impact it has on children, and afterwards people came up to me and told me ‘thank you for putting this into words’.” But later in the conversation she soberly discloses that, even after this performance, she had her doubts, saying “there was one time where I almost quit slam. I asked myself ‘really, what does this do?’”.   

It was when she was performing an early version of her piece “Letter to Myself Five Years Ago” that she realised an answer to her own question. “The entire time I was looking at the paper, and by the time I looked up this girl Sarah was in tears, and she was like ‘Thank you, I needed that’. … After that piece, Sarah’s coach came up to me and said ‘even if she doesn’t want to talk to you, I want you to open up to her’… That’s when it impacted me, and I thought ‘Damn!’ The fact that I can say these honest things I think other people will never understand, and that this will somehow help someone else — that’s just incredible.” She adds that “there are so many other ways that you can do that, be it through painting, public speaking, advice and counselling, but to do something I love and to have that impact at the same time is really important to me.”

(She seems to speak in free verse, her sentences spilling into one another musically and unapologetically)

“…and it also pays back: It’s a community! It’s an economy of emotion and support … Back home there is this saying ‘the point isn’t the points, the point is the poetry!’” — She says this flatly and ironically, as if it’s been drilled into her — “I never understood that until I met [the Pacific Tongues family] and I realised this can change lives, and this is incredible.” Awhile later, she says “It’s a really official organisation — don’t get me wrong — but it’s also a huge family”.

“So when and why did you decide to offer a Slam Poetry Club here at BCB?” I ask.

“I really missed being able to write, and I didn’t know if people liked slam poetry here, but at the first Open Mic Alona [a fellow first-year BA] came up to me, asked “What are you doing?”, and I said ‘I’m reading slam poetry’, and she said ‘We should do a slam poetry club!’, and I said ‘I don’t really know’. And then, after a little bit, I just really missed being able to express myself through some sort of writing.” The Open Mic is an awesome event that fellow Bardian student Jonah Dratfield has been hosting semi-regularly on campus. Alona has been part of the “slam-fam” since the Club’s beginning.

Alex continues: “It was a weird transition from what I had back home. I know it seems like ‘oh yeah, I wanted to do this to make a good community for everyone’, and it is that, but it was also for myself … I need poetry to survive. Even if I wrote it on my own, it’s always nicer to have a group of people doing it with you.” From the contrast between my experience with the club so far and my prior experience writing poetry in isolation, I can testify to this last point. After every meeting I feel as if I have a greater understanding of myself in relation to other people and of the implications of the word ‘creativity’. The variety of voices represented in that one room and the stories people have to share is truly humbling.

As Alex says, “There is no barrier between people in poetry. There is no such thing as a teacher or a student.” She would instead describe the role she has assumed as that of “a facilitator: You run it, but you are a part of it.”

“It’s really magic: after every Sunday I go to bed and I just think “maybe I helped someone today.”

“Well, yeah!” I exclaim. I know I definitely love the slam poetry sessions she offers and the sense of empowerment and unity they inspire. She laughs. Here is a girl who doesn’t fully comprehend how much she has already given the world and how much more she has to offer.

I ask what her vision for the future of the Club is; she admits “In the beginning I thought maybe five kids will show up, and we’ll read poetry together, and that will be it. But it’s become so much more. It’s gone way beyond my expectations. I hope that there will be consistent slams. I hope that maybe we could get future poets. Honestly, the sky’s the limit. Even Pacific Tongues started off as this tiny thing in a school cafeteria, and years later they literally sold out a museum auditorium. And they had people from all different islands come in, and it was on the news. So little things can definitely be big things.”

A thoughtful pause. “But I don’t want it to necessarily even be a big thing. I just want it to make a difference. I want kids, even after I’m gone, to have this to be introduced to or to rely on. I want them to have the same sort of acceptance I had when I first started slam.”

Perhaps, together, we can all make this happen.

For the more immediate future, students and faculty can look forward to the first of BCB’s “Second Saturday’s”, an open poetry event in which participation is “voluntary and encouraged”. It will be taking place at 8pm on December 12th in the K24 common room.

We hope to see you there!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.