The Slam Poetry That Could Be Front-Page News
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because slam poetry can be a window into world conflicts.
By Libby Coleman
Part of a weeklong series on poems and poets, sounds and sense.
Emi Mahmoud’s hands sometimes shake when she performs. “I can never forget how much death loves my people,” she says with the wisdom of someone much older than her 22 years. “Eleven days ago, two bullets crossed off two more faces from my family tree.”
The winner of the 2015 Individual World Poetry Slam — “the Olympics of performance poetry,” as past winner Sonya Renee describes it — and a member of the BBC’s 100 Women of 2015, Mahmoud turns painful memories and recent tragedies into art, with a confidence that suggests she’s been onstage since childhood. Not so, however: The Yale senior started performing just three years ago and has already gained the recognition of judges and peers, as well as a literary agent for her first full-length book of poetry.
In the mid-aughts, news about the conflict in Darfur was splashed across front pages. Today, deaths in that region might not even make a ripple in the American media, something that Mahmoud is keenly aware of. In 2013, she returned to Sudan — her family escaped years ago — to work in a birthing hospital and refugee camp clinic; at the camp clinic, the birthing room was a cot, she says, and the only other worker was a doctor, who told her that foreign aid workers fled when the government started killing their peers. “When you no longer have the focus of the world on you, it’s just the people who are from there who come back,” Mahmoud, who recently became co-champion of the Women of the World Poetry Slam, says.
Her poetry shifts the focus back on Darfur. What sets Mahmoud apart, according to Renee, is a “global lens. Slam can be very U.S.-centric.” Mahmoud tries to start conversations. Some of her talking points are anecdotal — she has returned to Sudan a number of times, the longest visit for six months — and some of her stories have been drawn from refugee family members. Still other insights stem from her academic work: She’s double majoring in anthropology and molecular biology and is currently studying the trauma experienced by Darfuri refugee women in the diaspora. Her hope is to combine raising awareness through performance with a concrete plan to rebuild infrastructure in Darfur.
And so Mahmoud stands in front of a crowd. “Burgundy blankets, burgundy people, but our tears are colorless. There is no hue to shade this pain,” she says. Whoops come from the audience, for her.