Ashley August Taught Me How To Slam

Or: The afternoon I learned to love spiders

By LA Markuson

I thought I was crazy to sign up for a Slam Poetry Workshop. I have been to tons of slams (the finals are tonight!) and really enjoy the art form, but have no interest whatsoever in becoming a competitive slammer. I do, however, have a very strong vested interest in becoming a better writer, and a more engaging performer, and I thought a slam workshop might help me in those regards, while also helping keep me very, very humble.

Turns out that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Ashley August is an award winning slammer, was NYC’s youth poet laureate, and is the slammaster at Bowery Poetry. But she’s also an up-and-coming TV actress, which gives her a whole different perspective on performance and I think makes her an even better poet.

We were a small group yesterday afternoon, a gloomy misty Sunday. There were six students which gave us a decadent intimacy both in proximity to Ashley, our teacher, and each other. We had a young artist who was feeling blocked and unsure, a teacher seeking a creative outlet, an established spoken word artist who had hit a wall, an actor seeking to improve his presence, a designer who had never performed a poem on a stage, and me, an improvisational haikuist with a love of the limelight. In case you were wondering.

First, Ashley took the time to ask us who we were, how we were, why we were here, and what we wanted to manifest this week. She carefully guided us to talk about ourselves and our goals not in a negative way, but sculpted our statements into the most positive and uplifting versions of themselves. I think that was crucial, because a lot of us were feeling very timid, shy, and worried about how embarrassed we’d be to try to slam on the gleaming stage nearby.

After our initial discussion, Ashley humbly explained that she was going to change the curriculum she had planned to focus less specifically on competitive slamming and “winning” and instead hone in on writing and embodying our performance. Touching on the world of competitive slam, she said she wanted us not to get too wrapped up in the idea of “winning” and emulating other styles, but that winning a room is really just about being rooted in yourself and the truth that you must tell. She asked us,

“Why get on stage if you don’t believe yourself?”

So true.

To kick off our work, Ashley asked us all to stand in a circle an do some warm up performance exercises. They were so simple, yet who ever takes the time to really get “in” their body and play with emotion, intention, movement, and tone? I know I didn’t, but I plan to do so a whole lot more now. We all completely embarrassed ourselves, and the release was palpable. A few of us were more nervous than others, and I could feel them relaxing and smiling more and more as we went on. Another inspiring quote from Ashley:

“How can you tell me that twerking on the street is not a poem?”

After we were warm, Ashley invited us to sit down and delve into a writing exercise. I really want to tell you about it but I also feel that I can’t give away the magic that ensued from the simple writing prompt/game that she taught us. We only wrote for about five minutes, but it was completely stream-of-consciousness yet intricately guided by Ashley, and all of us ended the exercise with some form of a poem, in varying states of completion. It’s truly incredible how a little bit of care, guidance, and time pressure can squeeze totally new thoughts from the grapefruit between your ears.

Of course, once we all had a poem to read, we all had to get up on the stage, under the spotlight, and perform our work. As someone who has read on stage, hosted events, sung, danced, acted, and done various other strange and embarrassing things on stage in front of audiences of all sizes, I wasn’t afraid per se, but I have definitely never written a stream of consciousness poem and recited it for others immediately after its completion. The feeling was refreshingly exhilarating, and my audience was so supportive and appreciative that I offered to read first.

But while I enjoyed getting up on stage and being appreciated (and not being disgusted by what I had written) the truly moving part of this portion was watching Ashley interact with every other student. The other students were a bit hesitant to read, and Ashley said,

“These poems are babies.
New, just created.
So take your time.”

I watched all these different people take the stage, peeling themselves open, exposing their most vulnerable selves, and it was only possible because our teacher had made the the deeply conscientious effort to connect with and nurture each and every one of us in exactly the way we needed. I was amazed.

After we all read, we were so energized and relieved, it felt like a collective runner’s high, or like we had just won a game together as a team. It was not the competitive slam experience I had thought, but was in fact much more powerful. A final thought from Ashley as we packed up to leave:

“Poems are weird.”

Check out the Bowery Slam with Ashley every Monday (the finals are tonight!)

Check out more of Bowery’s poetry and writing workshops.

Much love.