UW Multicultural Student Coalition’s 4th Annual Poetry Slam
Slamming for the Audience
By Jonathan Gramling

     Althea Miller, a fourth year UW-Madison student from Los Angeles,
California, is a poet. Not the Shakespeare, iambic pentameter kind of poet
who writes about her feeling in precise, uniform ways. Miller, along with
most poets from her generation, is a spoken word poet who feels more
comfortable getting up before an actively vocal crowd slamming down her
feelings about family and everything else going on in her life with a driving
rhythm filled with alliterations and rhymes. While she wants her audience to
think about what she is saying, she also wants them to feel it, as intensely
as she is laying it down.
     In addition to being a student and a poet, Miller is an executive with the
Multicultural Student Coalition and one of the organizers of the 4th Annual
Poetry Slam. “It started in 2007 and we’ve sponsored it ever since then,”
Miller said. “It’s just something that a few people found out about and
thought it would be a good idea to add our name to. And it has been going
strong ever since.”
      Spoken word poetry slams are audience-driven audio battles of one poet
Althea Miller, a spoken word poet and a Multicultural
Student Coalition staffer is one of the organizers of this
year’s Poetry Slam at the Wisconsin Union Theater.
trying to outdo the next. “What makes spoken word poetry different from just regular poetry is the fact it is written for an audience to be
heard, to be acted out, to be added to with movement,” Miller said. “Overall, it is something for the audience to participate in and
experience and react to whereas written poetry would be something with more of a structure and Shakespearean sonnets and things of
that sort. Spoken word is something more free. It uses alliteration, play on words and shocking lines. You know you have a really good
spoken word poem if the first line and the last line are really catchy and really stick with you and all throughout in the middle, the
audience is screaming and hollering and snapping their fingers. You know that’s a good spoken word piece when you have those
elements. You want to write to touch people or to make them laugh or to educate them about something. It’s always about you and
getting out what you have to say, but it is also about the audience and touching them and having them feel like they’ve had a profound
change in their lives just because they’ve heard what you had to say.”
       Outside of the respect that the poets and the audience give to each other, there isn’t anything considered out-of-bounds at a poetry
slam. “Anything goes in spoken word poetry as long as you can make it sound good,” Miller said. “Sometimes people get offended. As
long as they do it respectfully, it is okay. Some people might get offended and you could say they have soft skin and they need to toughen
up a little bit. For others, it will be just right. ‘Yeah, you really stuck it to them. Good job.’ It really depends on the listener. Sometimes the
audience will get raucous if the poet is out-of-line. They might not get any snaps. They might get some giggles. They might get some
people in the audience talking about how bad the poet is, but still give them respect when he or she drops their head. We’ll clap with the
understanding that maybe that wasn’t such a good piece.”
       Probably the only thing that would be considered out-of-line would be a monotone poet reading from a script.
       The unique thing about a poetry slam is that a poet doesn’t have all day to express themselves. “When spoken word poetry
becomes competitive, then there is a three-minute time limit with a 10 second grace period because we have mercy on the poets who
have a lot to say,” Miller said with a laugh. “But it is definitely three minutes, 10 seconds and that is it. But in just a normal lounge, it
would be however long the poet needs to get what they have to say across. But most spoken word artists turned slam poets have
become accustomed to writing poetry that fits within three minutes.”
       Before the 4th Annual Poetry Slam goes down on November 14 at 7 p.m. at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Multicultural Student
Coalition is also sponsoring two workshops featuring two nationally-renown spoken word artists. “The first guest artist we have is
Shanelle Gabriel,” Miller said. “She was a Def Jam poet and she’s been performing for 5-6 years. She also sings. She will be giving a
workshop called Words and Rhythms. She’s a funny poet. She’s from New York. She is fairly new, but her getting a start off Def Jam
Poetry is pretty phenomenal. She’s been pretty busy this year. We’re lucky that we got her top come. Then Shihan Van Clief is probably
the one that everyone is most excited about. He’s been out since the 1980s. He’s been on Def Jam as well. He’s had 4-5 appearances.
He founded the Poetry Lounge, which is how I found out about him. The Poetry Lounge is in Los Angeles. It’s the largest poetry, open-mic
venue in the country. He’s been in some poetry documentaries, things of this sort. There is general excitement about both of them, but
more so for him because he’s been out longer.”
       The workshops are free and open to the public. People will be able to come and learn and then rub elbows with the artists and do
some photo shooting. And then they can come to the 4th Annual Poetry Slam for some intense competition between 13 UW students.
“Some are members of First Wave,” Miller said. “But I definitely try to get a wide variety of students involved. This is what the Slam was
intended for because First Wave has its platform and we try to create something for other non First Wave people involved with. It’s open
to everyone. And everyone brings it.”
       Who would have ever thought that Madison, Wisconsin would become one of the centers of spoken word artists in the country? “I
feel like we are definitely known as the hip hop and poetry campus with things like the Slam and First Wave and other things that the
Multicultural Student Coalition does such as Hip Hop As a Movement Week, really educating people on what these elements are, we’re
able to not only bring the Black community together, but everyone together,” Miller reflected. “We definitely are able to see a diverse
crowd at these events just because it is something that people are hungry for. The people at the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives or
AMAI and the MSCS are the ones who are not afraid to bring this stuff to campus and make it happen. We’re definitely making moves
here.”
       And Miller expects everyone in the audience to be making moves on November 14 at the Poetry Slam. “People can come and be a
part of it and have their lives changed and their paradigm shifted,” Miller exclaimed. Bring it on!