By the time I reached college, I had no interest in being a writer. What a stupid job. Who wants to do that? I majored in theater. Much more chance of fame and fortune in that. I wanted to be an actor or director or something. I still wrote poetry, but I craved a lot more attention than handing you a piece of paper would elicit. I dabbled in standup comedy for a while, attended film school, wrote and directed a bunch of plays. Then I saw a folk singer at a festival in Canada who changed things. He had these ridiculously honest lyrics to the point of being embarrassing. He was funny and used very simple, clear language, and I kept finding myself in awe that he said these things out loud. I was mesmerized by the effect this had on me. I wanted to hit someone that hard. I could be that honest. I could do that.
This man reawakened my interest in writing. I started furiously scribbling poem after poem I'd read at any open mic I could find. Every Monday, you could find me at the Artist's Quarter, where they knew me as "Angry Girl," because a lot of my material was bitter stuff about men. Some things never change. But the thing was, I found these open mics to be, for the most part, well…..really boring. People would get up on stage with their journals and read to the microphone in a monotone, never lifting their eyes to acknowledge us. Now this was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and spoken word was barely a thing. I'm sure the open mics are all super now, so don't get your hackles up. But I thought it was such a waste. These people had a stage and a live audience. They were talking into a microphone. If they weren't going to vocally and physically do their work justice, why didn't they just hand me their journal to read for myself?
It was around this time that I tried slam. I had shied from the idea originally. It made no sense to me to score art. But I was willing to try anything at the time, so I showed up at Kieran's Irish pub one night, poems in hand to give it a go. I didn't know the rules, just heard they did this monthly. I happened to show up on a theme night. They were having the "Bad Poetry Slam," I was informed by a very nice man who used to run things around here, named Matthew John Conley. He lives in Texas now, has for decades. Seriously, they were building the pyramids in Egypt when this happened. Anyway, I was so disappointed, I just turned around and went home. I had nothing bad with me. I was young. I still took myself very seriously. But shortly after this I slammed at Jazzville in St. Paul and took THIRD PLACE! I followed this windfall with a first place triumph of the Op-Ed Slam where all the competitors were journalists and not performers, except for ME ME ME! I won money and a radio interview and a year membership to the National Writer's Union, and I was hooked.
You see, what attracted me to this format was not the opportunity to win. That's very nice when it happens, don't get me wrong. But I realized that this format made an open mic poetry reading into a spectator sport. The competition sucked the audience in, and it forced the performers to be just that. They HAD to respect the fact that they had a stage and a live audience, or they wouldn't win. It pushed me to try harder, gave me a natural editor because of the time limit, and made for a much more interesting show to watch. People came to the poetry slams. They reacted to what they heard, instead of just staring blankly. There was also money involved, which was cool.
So enough of the play by play autobiography. I realize I have not yet told you about the lovely grave my brother and I made as children for the pigeon we named after our favorite Doctor Who assistant, but I was given some questions to answer in this blog, and none of them involved pigeons. I'm sure it's an oversight. Nonetheless, I have laid out a rather self-indulgent tale here telling you why I slam, or rather why I did. I don't really any more.
I slammed a lot over the years. And I won a lot. I was on four Minnesota teams and one from San Francisco. I coached Berkeley one year. Nationals opened up a whole new world that I found very attractive. I made a ton of friends all over the country. I was able to tour to wherever I wanted and perform. Every year, I get to spend a week in a different major city and hang out with a pack of old friends who have the same interests as me. And I get to hear all sorts of stories and perspectives that aren't mine. It's great.
Now don't get me wrong. I did not stop slamming because I was disillusioned or because I dislike the format in any way. I simply got a little sick of myself. See, the thing about slam is that the work it encourages tends to be very manifesto driven. I love that. It's super fun. I have very strong opinions, so I fit right in, but I found myself at a point where I didn't really have anything I particularly wanted to say. This was around the time I lived in the Bay Area. And I was performing so much that I wasn't really writing anything, so I kept slamming with the same old stuff. And at a certain point, I just got tired of it. I felt that I had to have something new to express, but nothing came to mind, or at least, not in the form of a slam poem.
Anyway, after walking through an enormous yard full of hundreds of men in blue jumpsuits recreating, accompanied by a guard loaded with his weight in weaponry (I was the only girl, so I was clinging to this guard) we ended up in a packed classroom. The inmates loved my poem about my terrible taste in men, and afterwards, we were all swarmed with these men who had told these terrible stories up there, giving us compliments and asking us questions. I had a man with eleven tear drops tattooed down his face tell me he found me intimidating, because of my ability to perform. I was later told he was very high up in the Crips.
This show really struck me. These men took this very seriously and personally. They wrote their poetry with great heart. It was their outlet. This is why I do what I do. I have taught writing and performance in hundreds of high schools, colleges, and community centers around the country. And what I have found is that at any age, people need to express themselves, and poetry is a really effective way to do that. They don't have to want to be big slam stars or rappers or publish volumes. They can simply write for themselves. Everyone needs an outlet like that, and helping them find it is incredibly rewarding.
A long time ago, I taught a residency at Patrick Henry High School in North Minneapolis. I and another local poet each took a class in the ESL program. My class was primarily Hmong, and his was Liberian, all immigrants from countries that were very war torn. We learned quickly that there was a lot of hostility between the two populations at the school. After four months working with these kids who had more interest in graduating high school than writing poetry, I had learned an amazing amount about Hmong culture and what these kid's lives were like. Some of the shyest ones wrote some of the most moving stuff. And when we brought the two classes together in the end to do a reading, my students kept telling me they'd had no idea how much they had in common with the Liberian kids. It was a truly beautiful thing.
I don't know if I will ever get the urge again to slam on a regular basis. I did a lot of that in my time. I know how it feels to win and to lose. I have been on a bunch of teams, and don't have much need to be on another one. I will never officially retire from slam, because first of all, I think that's silly, and secondly, one never knows. If anyone who has officially retired from slam is reading this, you heard me. I think you're silly. But I will continue to write and perform. I will keep teaching. I go to Nationals now and teach workshops on performance and host the bouts. It's a much less stressful way to attend.
I feel at a certain point that I am done trying to prove myself. It is time now to help others find their voices. Dear God. That sentence belongs in a grant proposal. So these days I concentrate more on pushing myself in different directions. I work a lot on getting poetry published. I write a weekly op-ed column, which you are welcome to check out at opineseason.com. Columns are a much more spacious venue to spout manifestos. I write a lot of prose to challenge myself in a different way, and I teach. And in the past year I have been working on several short films of my poetry, which will be out in the next month, and you can find on my website, thadrasheridan.com. I think it is important as an artist and a person to be constantly pushing yourself and trying new mediums. When you think your work is perfect and you have nothing more to learn, that's when you start to die.
I think I have touched on most of the topical prompts that I was given for this article. If I missed any, it's because I didn't feel like addressing them, so there. I know you're all wondering what we named that pigeon we buried in my mother's yard, but you'll have to ask my brother. It was a very long name, and I haven't watched Doctor Who in decades. But we wrote it in ballpoint pen on the lovely little wooden cross we made for her grave. She was a great pigeon.