WeSlam is synonymous with Emily Weitzman ’14. A dance and English double major, Weitzman has participated in WeSlam since its founding; not only has she competed as part of the slam poetry team twice, but last year, she also acted as its coach all the way to Nationals. Weitzman talked with The Argus about writing poetry, strategy in slam competitions, and teaching kids in Kenya.
The Argus: Why do you think you’re a WesCeleb?
Emily Weitzman: I guess because I’m known for sharing personal thoughts about myself in front of audiences of strangers and organizing the slams at Wesleyan. I do a lot of things on campus, but I’ve been involved with WeSlam for all four years and I run it now. I’ve been on two of Wesleyan’s slam teams and I coached the team last year. And I talked to my grandma on the phone last night, I told her I was doing this interview, and she was like, “They picked well.”
A: Before we get to talking about WeSlam, what other things do you do on campus?
EW: I’m involved with Shining Hope for Communities, the organization that was started by Kennedy Odede ’12 and a nonprofit school in Kibera, Kenya. I’ve worked at that school for three summers on a program called the Summer Institute, taught at the Kibera School for Girls. I help run SHOFCO on campus, and I’m also a dance major, so I choreograph. And then I do WesBurlesque, I do WesReads, and a lot of random things.
A: Can you tell me about the school and how you got involved?
EW: I met Jessica Posner ’09, the person who co-founded the school with Kennedy, and I met her family on a plane to Kenya in high school, actually. They told me about the school, and it was part of what got me interested in coming to Wesleyan. I got involved with Shining Hope for Communities on campus when I got here freshman year, just helping with fundraising for the school and awareness and other events on campus. Then I applied to go to the Summer Institute my first summer, which is a program where college students work at the school for three weeks. They’re the teachers, while all the Kenyan teachers have three weeks off to work on curriculum and development. They asked me to come back and help lead that program the next summer. I studied abroad in Kenya, in Mombasa on the coast, on a program learning Swahili and Islam cultural studies. While I was abroad there, I went back to Kibera School for Girls again, and then I got the Olin Fellowship for two summers to do writing projects involved with the school.
I’m writing my senior thesis about a midwife in Mombasa whom I met while I was studying abroad there and my experience with her and other women in Mombasa.
A: Can you talk a little about what you did at the school and what inspired your idea to write a thesis?
EW: At the school, for the three-week summer program, I was teaching literacy and dance, writing, telling-your-story workshops, performing stuff. It’s a fun, educational summer camp type thing, so while the students have three weeks off from their normal classes, the college students and also youth from Kibera work together to make more, still educational, but fun, creative imaginative classes. I also helped develop an after-school program. The school had an after-school program, but I worked with the after-school teachers to integrate the arts and poetry and performing and dance into their after-school program.
In terms of my thesis, while I was abroad on the School for International Training, I did an independent study project about three Kenyan women where I interviewed them about their stories and life histories. I’m an English major with a concentration in creative writing, and mostly, even though I do slam poetry, I really love writing nonfiction, actually the most. I knew I wanted to do a nonfiction thesis, so I applied for the Olin Fellowship to go back and do more research with the midwife I met while I was there. She’s a really incredible person. At the time I wasn’t sure exactly what my topic would be, it sort of shifted over time, but I knew I wanted to write creative nonfiction.
It’s interesting because I was doing the research for it all summer, and now I have over 50 hours of voice recordings and journals full of stuff, and I have over four thousand pictures. I was really interested in the waiting room in the clinic I was working on and the concept of space, so I would sit in the waiting room with all the women who were waiting to go into the midwife, and I would watch people pass by on the busy street in Mombasa, and then I’d take pictures of that, and I became obsessed with taking pictures of what passed by in the little space of this doorway. That’s something that I’m writing about, describing in my thesis.
A: How did you get involved in slam poetry?
EW: I hadn’t heard of slam poetry before I got to Wesleyan, and then when I was here, my freshman year, that was actually the first year WeSlam started, by former WesCeleb Mike Rosen ’11. So I went to the second poetry slam and [watched] everyone up there on that stage just sharing their souls to strangers. The energy in the room was tangible, and it was such a spirited thing that was so exciting that, in that moment, I was like, I want to try this. After that second slam, I went home and tried writing my own poem and then ended up performing it in the third slam, making it to the final slam that first year. Then I was on the first ever WeSlam team. From there, the rest is kind of history. It’s pretty much taken over my life from that time. I feel really lucky that I’m the only person that’s gotten involved with the team every single year since its beginning. It’s really grown and progressed.
A: What’s it like actually being on the team?
EW: It’s really a wonderful and intimate experience because writing is something that is often an individual thing, done alone. So having that and putting it in the setting where there are four other people who are invested in your work and are totally engaged in your process, your editing and writing and performing process, that collaboration is really exciting. Also, when you’re on the slam poetry team, you can write group pieces together, which is a different and really fun experience, to write with someone else and to just work together and have a poem that is as much someone else’s as it is your own. Being on the WeSlam team has made me grow as a writer more than anything else. I’m also so close to the people I’ve been part of the team with because you’re in this setting, editing each other’s work about really personal topics, and you know, we travel to all these competitions together and sleep in the beds together and you become a family. We call it Slamily.
A: What topics do you normally write about? Or do you not have an overarching trend in your work?
EW: I don’t really think about having an overarching trend, because I just sort of write about what I’m feeling at any given time. I’m known for having a lot of weird poems about objects. A lot of times I see things in weird ways. Relationships in my life as seen by the objects they represent— that’s a theme that comes up a lot. I have this poem about my grandmother talking about this necklace that was really important to her and what it means to her. I have this poem called “Couch” that’s actually about my ex-boyfriend but it’s pretending that he is this couch that was important in our relationship. I write a lot and I don’t always perform all the poems I write.
A: What was last year’s trip to Nationals like?
EW: Well, [last year], I was abroad in the fall so I couldn’t try out for the team, so they asked me to coach. It was difficult to coach them, even though I’d been on the team twice before; it was a totally new experience. In some ways it was similar because, when you’re on the team, you’re expected to edit each other’s work and be invested in this process. But as the coach, I wasn’t working on my own writing with them at all. It was all about the team and really overseeing that editing process.
A: What sort of things do you have to think about as a coach that are different from when you’re on the team?
EW: It was totally collaborative. I didn’t want it to feel like I had any leadership role in that; it was very much equal. Really, the difference is that in any given competition, it was my role to decide which poem and which poet to do in each spot. Some people don’t realize there’s actually a lot of strategy involved in slam poetry, and basically making the right call for what to do at any given time could make it or break it for you in a certain bout. A bout has four teams, each team does four poems, and that’s what happens at all these competitions. So there’s a lot of pressure involved. At Nationals, there were 60 teams this past year, and we made it to the semifinals, which was pretty good. It was my job to make the strategy calls and to take our arsenal of poems, which was a lot of poems, and figure out how best to go about where to put each poem. And we did this strategy not because we wanted to be competitive about it but because we wanted to be able to share to the most people.
A: What decisions do you have to make, what strategic moments come up?
EW: An example is that you pick out of a hat which team goes first, and each team dreads getting the A slot, having to go first, because there’s this thing called “score creep,” which says that as the slam goes on, the scores get pushed higher and higher, and at the beginning the audience and judges aren’t as willing to listen to poetry, I guess. That was always a decision: who to put first, which poem to put first. Last year, for some reason, we thought a lot of their poems would work better later, so it was always a struggle to figure out who was going first and what poem was going first.
You can have a layout for what poems you want to do, but then if another team does a funny poem right before you were going to do a funny poem, it might not be the best bet.
A: What are your goals for WeSlam for this year?
EW: The final slam is this Saturday, November 23, at 9 p.m. in the CFA Hall. There are 10 poets in the final slam, and the top five make the team. So that would be my goal. I do want to be on the team, but…you never know what’s going to happen—having been on the team before doesn’t mean I’m going to be this year, because it’s a new team every year. Even if I don’t make the team, I’ll definitely stay involved with the team. I would be happy to coach them again. I did love that experience last year. And I’m excited to see the new group of five people, because when I was a freshman it was very upperclassmen-heavy, so all those first people who started with me are gone, it’s really new, fresh faces and I feel like it’s transitioning from one generation to the next and I’m sort of stuck there in the middle. It’s been great to see both sides of that transition.
I was just thinking that I met some of my best friends through WeSlam. The writing community on campus is really big, and there are so many different facets, and that’s been really cool. I think being involved in slam is what made me realize I wanted to be a creative writing major and now that I’m writing my thesis, I feel like it all ties together. And with dance, I even use spoken word in my dances, and in the teaching I’ve done in Kibera, I teach them slam and spoken word. I feel like everything ties together in a weird but nice way. I don’t know what I’m going to do in the future, but I think all of that will definitely have an effect.