On This Rickety Stage

By Emma Jonas ’15

In my backyard, balanced atop rocks and cinder blocks, are several planks of wood nailed clumsily together. A layer of peeling blue paint and glitter tops the wood, which is warped from long exposure to rain and heat. It looks, to be honest, like a pile of trash.

Almost monthly, though, that pile becomes the center of something special. It becomes a stage, and my backyard a venue. People stream through the metal gate, past the garage and onto the cement patio. They chatter and laugh, loud and distracted, excited for the upcoming event.

Someone steps onto the stage and yells, “Hey!” Some people stop talking and turn to face her. She yells again, “Hey!” More guests turn and listen. “Let’s start,” she says. “Our first reader is...”

People sit down in front of the stage as another student replaces the announcer.

“This is a poem I wrote at two in the morning,” the student might begin. Or, “I don’t really know how to write, but here’s something I made.” Or, “This is one of my favorite songs,” or, “This is something I wrote for a class.” The speaker clears his or her throat and holds a paper or cell phone up to the lamplight.

What comes next can be a number of things — soul-bearing, joke-telling, song-singing, rhyming, acting, reading. Anything is fair game. Whatever it is, the audience listens.

Even with on-campus print platforms available for students to share their creative work (Chrysalis, Mama Ain’t Raised No Fool, The Collegian, Wulapalooza, open mics) it’s difficult to casually interface with an attentive audience at Willamette. To share a poem via Chrysalis, say, one must email a submission, wait for acceptance, and attend the release party. These publications and programs are vital to creating a campus atmosphere that encourages creativity, but too much organization can make the experience feel inorganic.

Emma Reagan ’13, a creative writing major, recognized an opportunity. Her backyard (now my backyard) was spacious and unoccupied, so, with help from her friends, she set up the venue we still use today: a bench and table made of planks and stumps, a stage, an array of lamps and a single microphone. She put out a call to writers and performers to come share their work, and to the rest of campus to come support their peers. The rest, as they say, is history.

I remember attending the first of these “poetry slams” (not so much a “slam” in the traditional sense but a wider variety of performance types) as a sophomore. A group of friends and I ventured to the house, right next to Capital Market, and followed the sign on the door to the back gate. What we found there felt special: lights illuminating an empty stage; eager students waiting, cradling their wine bottles; and a palpable, jittery feeling that something great was coming.

The emcee mounted the stage, welcomed the audience, and invited the first reader to share. The reader spoke, and the crowd drank in every word. It was the first reading of dozens to follow that night. It felt intimate and honest. I couldn’t believe that Willamette students were capable of this.

I had never felt so connected to and at ease with my peers.

Reagan and her housemates hosted a slam almost every month for the rest of the year, and attendance increased each time.

Attendees connect by exposing themselves to the same emotional environment, and they are encouraged to voice their reactions and communicate with the speakers along the way. Amy Snodgrass ’15, a poet and creative writing major, has shared work at most of the slams. After her first reading, she said, people approached her and spoke with her about poetry, even months after the event. The slams facilitated her meeting a number of people beyond the groups with which she normally associated, and they showed her surprising new sides of strangers who she hadn’t known were writers.

Even professors are in on it. Mike Chasar of the English department attended one slam in disguise (“a cap pulled low over my eyes, a wrinkly flannel shirt and jeans”) after learning about the events from Reagan, his student at the time. The casual, participatory nature of the event struck him. He admired the passion of readers and audience members; it was present at few on-campus events.

After I immersed myself in the slams, campus started to feel a little different. I could walk to class and see a handful of people I recognized as readers or audience members. We had something in common now, even if we hadn’t known each other before. People began approaching me to discuss work I had shared at the slams. With the support of this network, people seemed compelled to cast off their shields of irony and self-consciousness even in official settings like classes and campus-sponsored reading events.

Recently, Chrysalis held a reading and student gallery in the Hatfield Room. People sat in a dimly lit semicircle, munching cheese and crackers. About 30 people, many of whom were regular attendees of the slams, shared their work. As the night went on, I felt the same warmth I had felt only at the slams.

After the event, others said they had felt it too, even though we had a schedule, were in the library, and had no wine bottles. We had already practiced this kind of sharing again and again. We had built trust. We had established a creative community that Willamette has needed, and it grows stronger each time someone takes the stage.

Emma Jonas is an English major in the College of Liberal Arts.

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Emma Jonas ’15

Poetry reading

“What comes next can be a number of things — soul-bearing, joke-telling, song-singing, rhyming, acting, reading. Anything is fair game. Whatever it is, the audience listens.”