7 Slam Poets Who Have Made The Word "Female" More Inclusive
She stands there, mouth to microphone, ready to speak. Without any book, any shield, she speaks her lines, heart, and mind. She is fearless, thundering, passionate, and brilliant. She owns every word. Dominique Christina, Aziza Barnes, Shira Erlichman, Rachel McKibbens, Andrea Gibson, Emi Mahmoud, and Sarah Kay — these women slam poets are de- and reconstructing a stronger, united and increasingly inclusive "woman."
We need these women. In a country where Hillary Clinton loses to Donald Trump, where females — especially females of color — get paid less than males for equal work, where freshman girls are handed a rape whistle on their first day of college, we need these women. We need their voices, their energy, their power to expand the expected definition of a "woman." They each pump helium into the term and then watch it stretch, to invite a diverse group of people inside the art of poetry and womanhood alike.
There is not one way to be a woman, but we are constantly told that we must fit into one box. This box holds the "ideal woman." Be quiet, this box mandates. Be pretty. Be tame. Be perfect. Each of the women that follow dismantle such an unattainable directive — not only with their poems, but also by speaking up, and refusing to be silent.
1. "Period Poem" By Dominique Christina
In Dominique Christina’s “Period Poem,” she urges her daughter to embrace her menstrual cycle, her body, and her blood. She inducts her into the clan of women who bleed strength and says, "Women know how to let things go, how to let a dying thing leave the body, how to become new, how to regenerate."
There is power in a community bonded by such blood: "My own cervix is mad influential," Christina slams. "Everybody I love knows how to bleed with me."
She embraces the natural beauty of her body, and the body of every woman, when she says, "To my daughter: should any fool mishandle the wild geography of your body, how it rides a red running current like any good wolf or witch, well, then, just bleed." Christina’s voice is strength, is pride. Her message is one of empowerment to every woman, every one of us, who thinks that bleeding (or being a woman, for that matter, anatomically or otherwise) is a symbol of weakness. Her words solidify an alliance between us, to create a more open dialogue. This honesty bonds us together over our bodies, but also gives us permission to speak out about our struggles and fears.
2. "To My Sister" by Aziza Barnes
In "To My Sister," Aziza Barnes questions the power dynamics between a male and female couple, as she slams: "Make him draw a picture of you every day until you know who you are in his eyes. If you do not like what you see, leave."
This piece urges us, as women, to open our eyes, and implores us to question the male gaze. Barnes’ voice is urgent, passionate, and loud. There is power in the awareness that Barnes brings to the surface, saying: "Do not say 'I love you' if your palms are open, like you are begging for something." Love is not a justification for inequality. These instructions allow us to question power, and then dismiss it if it does not treat them fairly. Barnes' voice defines women as a group that will not remain motionless.
3. "Ode To Lithium 600" by Shira Erlichman
In “Ode to Lithium 600,” Shira Erlichman hits on the stigma of mental illness like a piñata, and explodes into a dialogue. She states, "The side effect of not wanting to is not doing, the side effect of not doing is a couch and three movies." This poem piles side-effects on top of one another, until the audience sees that everything is a side effect. Erlichman gives a voice to something we, as women, are taught to be categorically ashamed of —something un-pretty and ungraceful — and turns it into a dialogue of understanding. Erlichman shows how we can be brave and lovable and perfectly beautiful beings, not just in spite of mental illness, but, at times, because of mental illness.
4. “Letter From My Heart to My Brain" by Rachel McKibbens
In "Letter From My Heart to My Brain," Rachel McKibbens embodies the word "brave." She tells us that it is possible to be unhinged and messy, and still be a strong, beautiful woman. "It’s okay to write I deserve everything," Rachel slams. "It’s okay to lock yourself in the medicine cabinet," and "It’s okay to feel like only a photograph of yourself."
We, as women, are taught to always be there to clean up the mess, but to never create one ourselves. McKibbens cuts through that order by making a powerful mess in her work, filled with agency and conviction. It is okay to be messy and emotional and sad, Rachel tells us. It is okay to express. McKibbens gives us the power to emote without being deemed too emotional, or unfeminine.
5. "Pansies" by Andrea Gibson
Andrea Gibson speaks ferociously about loving a woman in "Pansies," as we see how easily gender conventions in a can be broken. Gibson slams: "You called me pretty and I didn’t flinch. I knew I could still be your boyfriend."
There is a way to be both pretty and masculine. The body is something that both does and does not represent gender, but can always be beautiful, if only we let it. Gibson states, "On our second date, when I said, 'So your vagina, it’s really rad that babies have come out of it' what I meant to say is, 'Holy shit you’ve given birth.'"
Gibson’s voice promotes the power of the female body to hold and release pain, in childbirth and otherwise. Gibson promotes a more inclusive "female," one that can be a mother, a father, a boyfriend, a wife.
6. "The Bride" by Emi Mahmoud
In "The Bride," Emi Mahmoud states: "If you put a girl in a steel corset, you never have to hear her scream." Mahmoud speaks about the silencing of a bride, a woman, and a young girl. She depicts pain in the inability to choose and to speak, simply because of gender.
"She was a mail-order bride, and her father licked the stamp," she slams. Mahmoud’s bride is overpowered, and melted down into a dress, a wife, and nothing more. There is a violence in being muted. Mahmoud states, “Back home no one ever talks to the bride.” She asks, “How long have you known him? I don’t.”
It is not her wedding, not her love, but rather her time to sit silently, her time to be traded for dowery. Little girls are told, "Don’t climb trees or ride bikes…that’s how little girls loose their virginity." Mahmoud’s constant questioning of female oppression in her own culture not only opens our eyes to a singular issue of women's rights, but also causes us to turn towards our own cultural spheres, and direct an entirely new set of questions. Why must any woman be melted down, we ask. And where is that heat found to begin with?
7. "Dreaming Boy" by Sarah Kay
In "Dreaming Boy," Sarah Kay states, "In most of the dreams I remember from childhood I am a boy." She speaks about the duality of her waking life as a female, and her dream life as a male. She asks, "What does it mean to dream myself a gender?"
Kay highlights the struggle of trying to find language to describe who you are, and still falling short, each time. If she is a girl who likes doing "boy things," then is she a lesbian? Is she a boy? This paralysis of self-identification bleeds into Kay’s adult life until she starts dating this one boy. She states, "I guess what I am saying is: you make me feel like a boy like the boy I have always been." In this person, Kay finds that she can be a female dating a man, who makes her feel like the boy that she is in her dreams. She gives women a world in which gender does not need to reveal itself in just one way. Being a woman does not have to mean any one thing. Kay slams, “and just like that, I did not crave language that I had always thought I needed.”
Each of these woman redefines what it actually means to be a woman. Their new definition replaces the "staying silent” and "smiling pretty," with “standing up" and “telling your story.” Each story is necessary. Each story is a woman’s story, and each story is new. And, as we listen, we find our own voice.