Everyone knows Cherkira Lashley ’15. Google her (I did), and an article illustrating how she led the women’s basketball team to victory pops up. Residents of Writer’s Block and 200 Church know her as their RA, from this year and last. On top of all that, Lashley is visibly passionate about writing and performing slam poetry. The Argus sat down with her to talk about slam, its flaws, and how important spoken word is for the future of American education.
The Argus: When did you first get involved with writing, and slam poetry in particular?
Cherkira Lashley: I always loved to write. Both of my parents are preachers. When I was younger I would write down my pop’s sermons. That was my first relationship to writing. When I got here was when I first started writing poetry.
A: As a freshman just starting out with poetry, did you take any classes, or did you join any groups?
CL: I got involved in WeSlam and Writer’s Block.
A: What do you slam about? What’s your inspiration?
CL: I have about eight poems that are about the same thing: I write about where I’m from. I write about being from Brooklyn and living in a predominately urban space and then going to a school that’s totally different than that.
A: When you write, what are you looking for? Are you trying to find out things about yourself, or what?
CL: That’s a good question. I think it depends. In Writer’s Block, I’m definitely writing to figure out things about myself. I feel like it’s a lot of things that you feel and you don’t really know you feel until you write it out. But then with slam, you’re probably trying to make the slam team, communicate something to an audience, so it’s less about me when I slam. But honestly, when I write for myself, even in slam settings, it’s a better poem. There are some poems that I really like, or that my peers really like, and then it’s like, “I can’t slam this.” It’s a real difference between personal poetry and a slam-type event.
A: What are you usually hoping for audiences to get out of your slam? Maybe your home theme in particular—what do you want them to think about?
CL: I definitely want them to know something about me, but also think about maybe a flaw in the American psyche. I don’t know—I write about American shit a lot, and being black in America, just ’cause it’s what I know. And I feel like if you can make a political statement talking about yourself personally, then people are more likely to listen to you. People get political and intellectualized stuff, but then when you’re talking one-on-one, that’s when you make the most impact. So I feel like with bigger audiences, I try to critique things about America through personal experiences.
A: What’s something that people really don’t understand about slam poetry?
CL: That it sucks sometimes. Sometimes the listener only cares about the performance, and they don’t pay attention to the writing or the message. And that is really whack to me. It discourages good writers from writing good pieces, and just writing, you know? It’ll make people focus on their performance, or focus on saying something punch-y with a political stance versus writing. That’s something that is pretty awful about slam. Also, I know just from being at national slam competitions, I literally was like sitting down in the audience with headaches, just so anxious about whether or not my team is gonna make it. I couldn’t even listen to all the poems and appreciate it because I was so nervous. That aspect of slam is pretty whack. But the fact that so many people are coming out to listen to poetry is great, and that’s what slam does.
A: Did you have any experience with performing before slam?
CL: No, I didn’t have any experience.
A: Did it used to be a lot more nerve-racking than it is now?
CL: Oh yeah, definitely. I didn’t know if I was good. I thought I sucked. I didn’t have any friends. I was a freshman. I was the only athlete on my hall in Writer’s Block, so I felt like people really didn’t like me like that. [Laughs.] Except for my roommates. So I was definitely nervous. But people liked it; people were like, “You’re good,” and I was like, “Oh, word? That’s cool. I’mma keep doing that.”
A: When was your first competition? Also, what does a competition entail?
CL: There are events on campus that people just put on. WeSlam is a group that puts on events that are usually to find out who’s going to be on the slam team. The slam team performs a lot more competitively—they travel to other colleges, blah blah blah. But when I was a freshman I wasn’t on the slam team. I performed on campus ’cause I felt like it. I wasn’t trying to compete at other colleges because that seemed so overwhelming, and so my first competition, I think, was on the stairs in front of Allbritton. I really wanted some help, and I had gone to a WeSlam meeting before. I looked at the new people there, and I was like, “All right, we’re gonna band together,” so I read my poem to them before so that I could feel more comfortable. But that actually wasn’t a competition; that was a slam event. Competitions are more when you’re trying to get on the team, because the top five people get selected to go onto the next round.
A: How would you judge?
CL: How would I judge? If I thought the poem was good I’d give it like a 9 or a 10, to be honest. I’d rather give all 10s or judge between a 9 and a 10. I don’t really believe in scores. A poem is a conversation, I’m not going to rate our conversation after we talk, like, “Oh, that conversation with Sammi got a five.” Like, no. I’m participating in this with you. You just wouldn’t want me to judge.
A: How does slam fit into your academic life?
CL: I’m an English major and an [African American Studies] major, so I think that’s definitely in conversation with slam, or spoken word, and my thesis actually has a creative component to it that requires me to write poetry. So in that way, I think it’s been a huge part of my academic experience; I’ve taken a lot of poetry courses, I’ve convinced a lot of teachers to let me write, like, poems instead of an essay, or a 10-page paper having 5 pages of poetry and 5 pages of essay. So I think slam has helped me out in that regard ’cause I can pretend that poetry is super academic for me.
A: So, you’re a senior. What are you thinking about for after graduation?
CL: That’s the worst thing to ask me about. [Laughs.]
A: I know, I know, I’m sorry.
CL: The ideal situation would be for me to get this grant I just applied to, called the Davis Peace Grant, which is a grant for $10,000, and it would basically fund some restorative justice work that I would do in Chicago for six months. That would be the first step. I’m trying to occupy some time before grad school, and I don’t know if grad school is the answer, but I think I should probably go. I don’t know. I just applied to that, and Teach for America, which I hate, but I just applied to it for options.
A: Why do you hate Teach for America?
CL: It’s so flawed. It doesn’t give you enough preparation to be a successful teacher, once you start teaching. You probably will eventually become a successful teacher, a good teacher, but you’re teaching before you’re a good teacher. The first two years the students are being experimented on. You know what I mean? After five weeks of extensive training. That’s what I disagree with. I mean, granted, everybody’s different, and I think that people have a natural talent for teaching, but there are others who are just graduating college and don’t know what to do that are just going to apply to TFA just to occupy their time. So, that’s my beef with that. But I am really interested in education, so I don’t feel like one of those people who just wants to apply to apply.
A: If you do become a teacher, would you want to fit slam into teaching?
CL: Oh, yeah. I think spoken word should be weaved into every curriculum, especially if you’re in a predominately black and Latino environment. If you look at writing historically in this country, it was a tool used to subjugate people. People didn’t have access to writing, and that wasn’t that long ago. If you look at the literacy rates in black and Latino communities comparatively with white communities it makes sense that black and Latino scores are so much lower in classes where they have to write a lot and read a lot. Historically, in certain societies, writing things down wasn’t even a part of education or communication. Everything was done orally. I think that that could be an incredible way to assess people’s learning and intellect. If anybody was radical enough to put me in front of a classroom, I definitely would weave spoken word into the learning experience.