Saturday, April 9, 2016

World Poetry Slam Champ—Darfur Exile Emi Mahmoud

Emi Mahmoud at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships.

It’s definitely a year with a developing theme!  Another remarkable immigrant/refugee has made her mark on the cutting edge of poetry.  Emi Mahmoud is a Yale senior who was born in Darfur in Sudan. 
Her parents were writers who were displaced by the genocide in that country.  When she was a toddler they fled to Yemen and then to the U.S. in 1998.  Her parents worked to raise awareness of the genocide.  At first, she told an interviewer for YaleNews, her parents tried to shield their children from the grim reality.  But she became curious about what they were doing, “When I insisted they tell me, they did. I just picked up a pen and started was soon composing verse for the cause."

Her family's experience of the Darfur genocide impelled Emi Mahmoud to write. 
The girl, whose grandmother, the family matriarch, was an illiterate villager, grew up to be admitted to Yale, one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
Although she was an experienced writer who had dabbled in poetry, Mahmoud was completely unfamiliar with the world of spoken word performance art that had percolated up from coffee houses, smoky saloons, and even street corners carrying on the traditions of beat poetry, infused with hip-hop and rap, and the self-conscious avant gurde art scene.  It was a poetry alternative to the literary/academic establishment with its little magazines and fading connections to the broader culture.
She first encounter this slam poetry culture during Bulldog Days,  an annual three-day program held to introduce incoming freshmen to all of the opportunities Yale has to offer including performance opportunities like the legendary Whiffenpoofs, theatrical groups, and slam clubs.  She caught a performance  by an upper classman, Sam Beckett that inspired her.  She wanted to be a part of that scene.
But it was not easy.  The two most prestigious campus spoken word teams, Teeth Slam Poets and WORD: Performance Poetry required auditions.  With no experience Mahmoud could not get in for her freshman year.  Undeterred she discovered ¡Oyé!, spoken word group affiliated with the Latino Cultural Center that did not require auditions.  Despite the cultural differences she dared to join and they welcomed the African girl in the head scarf. “I needed a space where I could grow my art and write for the sake of writing and for the sake of community. I found that in Oyé,” she said.
She honed her skills and began competing in campus completions with the group.  She kept getting better, rising steadily in the ranks of slam contestants.  After a few months she made the Yale Slam Team, which competes on the collegiate national level under the leadership of Alysia Harris, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics which she described as transformative experience.
Her talents, both as a competitive poet and as an organizational resource were soon noticed.  She eventually became co-artistic director of Oyé with David Rico and co-coached the Slam Team with Harris, a role she described as an apprenticeship.
In 2014 she competed with the Slam Team at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational at the University of Colorado–Boulder where Yale finished 9th in a field of 52. Despite this success, Mahmoud  slipped into slump the following year experiencing writer’s block and failing to make the intercollegiate team.
But on the strength of her previous work, she was awarded the Davenport Class of 1956 Fellowship to write and teach poetry to youth the following summer.  The experience re-invigorated her as an artist and the connection to the kids and community sharpened her sense of purpose.  

Mahmoud in performance.  
To climb back on the horse of slam completion Mahmoud joined a New Jersey based off-campus team, Loser Slam. Through the,, she was able to secure a spot on the Individual World Poetry Slam Championship (iWPS) team by the end of the summer.  That meant she would be competing with the top performance art poets in the world.
She was set to compete in the international completion in Washington, DC but almost didn’t make it.  After stopping in at her home in Philadelphia on her trip from New Haven, her father was driving her to the train station when they got word the Mahmoud’s beloved grandmother succumbed to a battle with cancer.  She decided to skip the competition to return home to comfort her mother.  At home, both of her parents helped convince her that her grandmother, who used to enjoy watching her granddaughters do their lessons, would have wanted to compete.
Due to the circumstances, she received an extension to register and made it to the competition.  There she advanced through the rounds despite her emotional turmoil.  In fact, she advanced further than she expected.  She was the only poet to receive perfect scores in the first two rounds with powerful pieces about Dafur.  She had already used her best material and had nothing ready to perform when she reached the finals.  In less than a day she wrote two new poems, one about her grandmother, and a second about her mother.  When she finished she had less than three hours to memorize the two lengthy pieces.
There were three bouts with four of the twelve finalists eliminated after the first two.  She survived those round and drew the last spot in the final round were she used the poem for the mother.  By the time she was half-way through the performance, the audience was on its feet cheering.  She received another perfect score and won the competition by one-tenth of a point.  She was officially World Champion.

Mahmoud with her championship trophy.

Mahmoud was overwhelmed and awestruck by the experience and the sense of support she felt from the audience and even from her competitors.  It was true community.  She also recognized the cathartic and therapeutic value of the experience in the midst of her grief.  “It was like an out-of-body experience.  I had several hundred people celebrating the women in my family with me, standing in solidarity and cheering for peace. That’s pretty amazing.”
Back at Yale, Mahmoud continues to write.  Branching out from poetry and drawing on her experience she is already at work on a book about grief and how people deal with it.  She shares her work on a popular Facebook page .  Her overwhelmingly powerful National Championship performance can be found on Youtube.
The poem begins with a casual sexual street come on.  Where it goes from there will take your breath away.
I was walking down the street when a man stopped me and said,
Hey yo sistah, you from the motherland?
Because my skin is a shade too deep not to have come from foreign soil
Because this garment on my head screams Africa
Because my body is a beacon calling everybody to come flock to the motherland
I said, I’m Sudanese, why?
He says, ‘cause you got a little bit of flavor in you,
I’m just admiring what your mama gave you
Let me tell you something about my mama
She can reduce a man to tattered flesh without so much as blinking
Her words fester beneath your skin and the whole time,
You won’t be able to stop cradling her eyes.
My mama is a woman, flawless and formidable in the same step.
Woman walks into a warzone and has warriors cowering at her feet
My mama carries all of us in her body,
on her face, in her blood and
Blood is no good once you let it loose
So she always holds us close.
When I was 7, she cradled bullets in the billows of her robes.
That same night, she taught me how to get gunpowder out of cotton with a bar of soap.
Years later when the soldiers held her at gunpoint and asked her who she was
She said, I am a daughter of Adam, I am a woman, who the hell are you?
The last time we went home, we watched our village burn,
Soldiers pouring blood from civilian skulls
As if they too could turn water into wine.
They stole the ground beneath our feet.
The woman who raised me
turned and said, don’t be scared
I’m your mother, I’m here, I won’t let them through.
My mama gave me conviction.
Women like her
Inherit tired eyes,
Bruised wrists and titanium plated spines.
The daughters of widows wearing the wings of amputees
Cary countries between their shoulder blades.
I’m not saying dating is a first world problem, but these trifling moterfuckers seem to be.
The kind who’ll quote Rumi, but not know what he sacrificed for war.
Who’ll fawn over Lupita, but turn their racial filters on.
Who’ll take their politics with a latte when I take mine with tear gas.
Every guy I meet wants to be my introduction to the dark side,
Wants me to open up this obsidian skin and let them read every tearful page,
Because what survivor hasn’t had her struggle made spectacle?
Don’t talk about the motherland unless you know that being from Africa
means waking up an afterthought in this country.
Don’t talk about my flavor unless you know that
My flavor is insurrection, it is rebellion, resistance
my flavor is mutiny
It is burden, it is grit and it is compromise
And you don’t know compromise until you’ve rebuilt your home for the third time
Without bricks, without mortar, without any other option
I turned to the man and said,
My mother and I can’t walk the streets alone back home any more.
Back home, there are no streets to walk any more.
Emi Mahmoud

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