Hey Grubbies! For every Friday there comes a Monday, but we’re hoping to add some excitement to the beginning of your work week with another slam poet interview, this time featuring Laura Brown-Lavoie. The Cantab Lounge is known for its high-energy poetry night every Wednesday, and Laura is one of its most gutsy and talented performers.
Until next time…
You’re such a talented and engaging performer. What came first, the writing or the performing? How did you become interested in slam poetry?
Thank you! I started writing long before I started performing. Probably my first writing was imagining stories that my sister and I dictated to our dad when we were quite small, which he wrote down and drew pictures for. In high school I liked to write, but it was not until I got to Brown that I found a community of spoken word poets who inspired me to say my poems out loud.
Your subject matter really resonates with an audience. Your poem “Public Library” seemed to extend this mutual love for a place like the library between you and the listeners. Can you describe the origins of this poem? How do you choose your subject matter and what would you ideally like the audience to take away from a performance? Also, what is the goal of a slam as a whole? (90-part question)
My poem about public libraries came from, well, the fact that I fuckin love public libraries. But seriously, it came from a feeling I have when I am in a library, of gratitude that such a place exists. Whenever I’m washed over with gratitude about something, it makes me want to write a poem. And especially in a time when public services are on the chopping block in our political dialogue, I wanted to write a piece reminding us all that we have certain public institutions worth standing up for. Additionally, I love it when a performance poem becomes a communal moment, when everyone in the audience feels the same feeling I had when I wrote the poem, which hopefully happens with my poem about libraries.
I guess slam is a poetry competition? I dunno, slam for me is a vehicle for public performances, a way of finding audiences, and hearing other poets. The competition side of things is sometimes fun, but usually distracts from what is really great about live performance, which is that we are all getting together to experience something, hopefully something beautiful and thought-provoking. I don’t really consider myself a slam poet, although I am a poet who participates in slams.
Do you practice before a slam? If so, What is that process like? Do you often come up with new material or do you use certain pieces again, like a set?
I definitely practice in the days and hours leading up to a slam. Usually I go for walks and say my poems out loud (it’s easier to do something so repetitive when at least the landscape is changing.) Sometimes an upcoming slam is the catalyst for new material, because it’s always exciting to go to a competition with something fresh (the library poem was brand new the night you saw it), but for any given slam, I usually can only swing one new piece, and the others are older poems that I’ve worked on for a while.
My favorite of your poems was “Beans” because you got the audience to participate in chanting “beans” as a beat and a vehicle to move from one thought to the next. In “Drone” you also repeated a buzzing sonance to animate an engine or a bee throughout. What is the difference between written and spoken word, to you? Are your poems created to be performed?
The main difference between written and spoken poetry, for me, is the instant gratification of audience response. When my written work goes out into the public, it is not guaranteed that I’ll ever see the people who read it face-to-face. But when I perform a poem in front of a live audience, their experience of my writing is real-time, and I know immediately how it was received. This is extremely gratifying, and gives me the opportunity to experiment with things like audience participation and sound effects. My first audience for a poem are sort-of the guinea pigs of whatever I’m trying to do, and each subsequent performance offers an opportunity to improve the work based on how the audience reacts. It’s a pretty amazing revision opportunity.
Can you describe your first experience getting up on the mic? What advice would you give first-timers who might be curious about slamming from a distance?
My first time performing involved a lot of blushing and nervous hand gestures. (I still feel very self-conscious onstage, especially before and after a poem. It’s okay to be nervous and physically uncomfortable, though, there are a lot of eyes on you!) My biggest advice to emerging writers is to find a community. Making a commitment to meet with other writers on a regular basis has been invaluable in my development as a writer. Listening to, and commenting on, other people’s work helps you identify what you like in writing, and having people you trust to share your own work with is equally vital to developing your voice. Other writers keep me writing! Once you’ve said it out loud to a room of supportive peers, it’s not such a long shot to try saying it out loud on stage.