Saturday, January 18, 2014


The first poetry slam took place in Chicago at the Get Me High Lounge (love the name) in 1984. This is both a happy and an unhappy coincidence. Happy because it was the year I graduated from college. Unhappy because — oh! — how my bookish high school classmates and fellow English majors would have shone!

Since then, poetry slams have become a badge of the proud poetic nerd. Especially now that the Internet affords such a huge audience. (Think of the web as the world's largest coffee house with hundreds of millions snapping their beatnik fingers in appreciation.)

Competitive poetry performance? What better way for women to express themselves!

Here are two of my favorite performance poems. As the mother of a teenage girl, these have a profound message for me. They are variations on a theme, one written by newcomer Savannah Brown, and the other by a veteran slammer, Katie Makkai.

Brown is just seventeen years old and she wrote her epic in response to a video that a sixteen-year-old boy, Nash Grier, posted on Vines. It was called "What Guys Look For In Girls." It wasn't exactly upbeat — or respectful.

The backlash was so great that Grier has removed the offending post and unplugged his YouTube account. (Yay backlash!)

Here is Brown's response:

When I first learned that no one could ever love me more than me
a world of happiness previously unseen was discovered
because somewhere along the line of aging and scrutiny and time
I was taught to despise myself
but I made sure I kept myself beautiful so someone would love me someday
so I could belong to someone someday
because that's the most important thing a little girl could ever want, right?
I was thirteen the first time I was embarrassed about my body
of course it would not be the last
and I remember stuffing my bra in the morning 
with tears stinging my eyes 
hoping, praying to something that I could look beautiful enough today, braces and all, for the ruthless boys
who mercilessly told me I was worthless
because my boobs weren't big enough
and I would go home and put on a sweatshirt with my eyes closed,
deny myself the right to be shown myself,
because I didn't dare want to insinuate beauty 
in regards to something so insulting as my body.
But I mean we all end up with our heads between our knees
because the only place we'll ever truly feel safe
is curled up inside skin we've been taught to hate
by a society that shuns our awful confidence and feeds us our own flaws
and sometimes when I need to meet the me that loves me, I can't find her,
a reminder that the mirror is meant to be a curse so I confine her in my mind 
but when when he or she shouts let me out
we're allowed to listen.
But it's met by a chorus of conceited
but since when was self solicitude a sin?
since when was loving who we are made an offense by morons that don't matter
change this physicality and that one, don't you shatter the illusion you could ever 
be anything beyond paper fine flesh and flashy teeth and fingernails
echoic accusations of not good enough, never good enough
have you ever felt so numb that it hurts
entertain me
you can't surrender to them 
you gotta remember you're the only thing you'll ever truly have
and no I don't mean your body because someday it'll go bad no matter what you do
I mean you
I mean the way your bright eyes go wild when you smile
and how your laughter's so melodic it's a song
I mean the way your creativity's a compass that leads you to what you love
and you don't need any miracle cream to keep your passions smooth, hair free
or diet pills to slim your kindness down
and when you start to drown in these these petty expectations
you better examine the miracle of your existence
because you're worth so much more than your waistline
you're worth the beautiful thoughts you think
and the daring dreams you dream, undone and drunk off alcohol of being
but sometimes we forget that
because we live in a word where the media pulls us from the womb
nurses us
and teaches us our first words
skinny pretty skinny pretty
girls soft quiet pretty
boys manly muscles pretty
but I don't care whether it's your gender, your looks, your weight, your skin, or where your love lies 
none of that matters because standards don't define you
you don't live to meet credentials established by a madman
you're a goddamn treasure whether you wanna believe it or not
and maybe that's what everyone should start looking for.

Twelve years earlier, Katie Makkai expressed similar issues about the word we all use a thousand times a day with our little daughters: "Pretty." (Warning, there is some adult language here — but in my opinion, it's appropriate.)

When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, “What will I be? Will I be pretty? Will I be pretty? Will I be pretty? What comes next? Oh right, will I be rich?” Which is almost pretty depending on where you shop. And the pretty question infects from conception, passing blood and breath into cells. The word hangs from our mothers' hearts in a shrill fluorescent floodlight of worry.

“Will I be wanted? Worthy? Pretty?” But puberty left me this funhouse mirror dryad: teeth set at science fiction angles, crooked nose, face donkey-long and pox-marked where the hormones went finger-painting. My poor mother. 

“How could this happen? You'll have porcelain skin as soon as we can see a dermatologist. You sucked your thumb. That's why your teeth look like that! You were hit in the face with a Frisbee when you were 6. Otherwise your nose would have been just fine!

“Don't worry. We'll get it fixed!” She would say, grasping my face, twisting it this way and that, as if it were a cabbage she might buy. 

But this is not about her. Not her fault. She, too, was raised to believe the greatest asset she could bestow upon her awkward little girl was a marketable facade. By 16, I was pickled with ointments, medications, peroxides. Teeth corralled into steel prongs. Laying in a hospital bed, face packed with gauze, cushioning the brand new nose the surgeon had carved.

Belly gorged on 2 pints of my blood I had swallowed under anesthesia, and every convulsive twist of my gut like my body screaming at me from the inside out, “What did you let them do to you!”

All the while this never-ending chorus droning on and on, like the IV needle dripping liquid beauty into my blood. “Will I be pretty? Will I be pretty? Like my mother, unwrapping the gift wrap to reveal the bouquet of daughter her $10,000 bought her? Pretty? Pretty.”

And now, I have not seen my own face for 10 years. I have not seen my own face in 10 years, but this is not about me. 

This is about the self-mutilating circus we have painted ourselves clowns in. About women who will prowl 30 stores in 6 malls to find the right cocktail dress, but haven't a clue where to find fulfillment or how wear joy, wandering through life shackled to a shopping bag, beneath those 2 pretty syllables.

About men wallowing on bar stools, drearily practicing attraction and everyone who will drift home tonight, crest-fallen because not enough strangers found you suitably fuckable. 

This, this is about my own some-day daughter. When you approach me, already stung-stayed with insecurity, begging, “Mom, will I be pretty? Will I be pretty?” I will wipe that question from your mouth like cheap lipstick and answer, “No! The word pretty is unworthy of everything you will be, and no child of mine will be contained in five letters.

“You will be pretty intelligent, pretty creative, pretty amazing. But you, will never be merely 'pretty'.”

The Afghan Women's Writing Project, a collective of women who risk their lives (quite literally) to write poetry, states that:

"To Tell One's Story Is A Human Right."

Right on, ladies. Write on.

If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to order a copy of my new book Lovin' the Alien at 


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