Four years ago, Jamila Woods '11 had never read her own poetry for an audience. She's come a long way since.
Last month, Woods competed as part of the youngest team at the National Poetry Slam held in West Palm Beach, Fla. Though most teams at the slam were made up of adults, Woods and her teammates were drawn from a college-age demographic that is often poorly represented at organized poetry slams.
Woods' team consisted of the winners of the inaugural college-level slam in the Louder Than a Bomb poetry festival, a Chicago-area competition for young artists, she said. The team — four poets and one alternate who are all based in Chicago but attend college all over the country — began preparing over the summer for Nationals, a five-day festival and competition that featured 68 teams from around the nation.
The group spent the summer in intensive training, working with volunteer coaches who led them through vocal and writing exercises and facilitated the collaboration and team-building needed to write a cohesive group piece, Woods said. The team raised money for their plane tickets by selling books of their own poetry and CDs.
At the slam, Woods performed an individual piece, in the group piece and in the slam's unscored rookie showcase. The team finished in the middle of the pack, but Woods said the value of the experience came from seeing others slam and having a chance to perform on a national stage.
"Everyone got space and the airtime they deserved," she said. "So that was important."
But Woods never expected to be performing alongside professional poets.
Though she wrote for her own enjoyment in high school, she said she was more focused on theater, dance and singing, and never intended to share her writing with anyone. Then, the summer after her sophomore year of high school, she applied for an arts program and was assigned to do performance poetry — her last choice among the three disciplines she listed. She was originally disappointed, she said, but she wound up loving it.
Woods began competing in high school slams and became involved with an arts group in her hometown called Young Chicago Authors.
When the time came to apply to colleges, she knew she wanted to go somewhere with a spoken-word community. The existence of local groups like Word! and AS220 — an arts space and community downtown — brought her to Brown, where she is double concentrating in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies and Africana Studies.
She said she draws her inspiration largely from people she knows, but that she aims to make the stories she tells relatable to a larger audience.
"I'd say people are usually what I end up writing about — especially people very close to me or members of my family," Woods said. "But I like to broaden the subject matter, make it a universal story."
For Woods, slam poetry is all about forging connections and community. "I've always envied people who speak another language. But I've sort of found my own language with this — I can say words and people will feel a certain way regardless of whether they know exactly what I'm writing about. I can transmit this feeling and they'll receive," Woods said.
"That's the most awesome part about doing performance poetry."