For those who haven’t heard the great news, I just recently won the No Ifs No Butts Tobacco-Free Poetry Slam. Yeah, I imagine it sounds like something straight out of a sitcom, but I guarantee I took it completely seriously.
Seriously enough, that the night before the slam I was close to tears about the thought of even entering. Serious.
I haven’t done a slam since 2010, for a great many reasons. One of them was that I was used to a particular kind of slam – one that was tied to a process of writing and performance building, instead of a random contest. I always managed to create strong work with my family at the Wordsmiths, because it wasn’t about who won or lost. When we slammed, it was about sharing what new work we had, and revealing parts of ourselves to those who wanted to understand us and knew the language that we spoke. When I broke up with my girlfriend, I performed it for those folks. When I was struggling with my faith, I revealed my pain to them. Strangely enough, those two times I did pieces like that, I had much stronger performances than with any of my other pieces. And I won slams with those pieces, too.
Which brings me to my second point – you actually have to reveal yourself. It took me a week to finally decide to perform “Lash Him” the piece about the catastrophic breakup with my girlfriend. When I wrote “Divine Intervention”, I had to decide whether I wanted to scream curses at God in front of my friends, mentors and people who cried when I returned to God. Those were the two hardest performances of my life. They meant I had to admit things to friends and strangers that I was having problems even admitting to myself. It means telling stories of resentment, hurt and depression that I’ve never truly owned, and ideas of Love and Peace that I was afraid to jinx by saying too quickly…
On Saturday 24th, 2013, I revealed why I detest smoking – because it killed my stepfather, and is killing my grandfather.
Art, in a great many ways, is about catharsis. We watch movies to escape a reality that seems riddled with stresses, and watch someone else’s triumph through adversity. We go see plays to be reminded of the humanity of others, and learn to solve problems through and for them. We listen to music to fully experience our own emotions or to actively combat them. It’s a different process for those who create that art – it’s always about identifying with the thing that we’re making, even when that connection may seem arbitrary or even absent.
For me, here, the connection was very real. I used to read cancer studies and warnings against smokers to my grandfather as he would smoke in the other room. I used to slip my stepfather’s cigarettes under his bed so he would sit on them by accident. Now, my grandfather’s health is deteriorating, and my stepfather passed away of lymphoma in 2009. And I never really let myself speak about those things before. And now, I was finally stating them, to myself and a bunch of people who’ve never known me like that before. It’s a bothered me a great deal to say. I don’t want to admit that I believe that my grandfather might pass away. I had no intention of revisiting how I discovered about my stepfather’s illness, and of his death. And I don’t wish anyone to have those sorts of stories to tell…
But at the same time, there’s value in me having that story, and deciding to tell it. Not just for the folks that might be saved from smoking or have a reason to quit from something that I said. But for myself. I’d be lying if I said that the act of writing that piece, and finding the words, and finally saying the thing on stage in front of old and new friends. But I’d also be lying if I said it wasn’t powerful and uplifting. I had a chance to tell my stepfather goodbye, even though I wasn’t there in his final moments and my family wasn’t able to go to the funeral. I get to tell my grandfather how much I Love him, and that I am glad he took the time to quit in these years, and that I hope to spend more years with him.
Blessings, Compassion, Peace and Love to Brian Moore and Lance O’Brien.