Combating inequality with poetry: Behind the scenes at the 'Lipstick Wars'

Oct 27, 2016 at 3:44 pm
Chinnel Williams
Chinnel Williams Photo by Michelle Smith

Blasting Beyoncé’s “Who Run the World,” Rheonna Thorton entered the Bomhard Theater stage as the sold-out crowd greeted her like a rock star. Thorton has a broad and infectious smile, and it was on full blast during the second annual “Lipstick Wars Poetry Slam,” held last Saturday at the Kentucky Center.

Thorton is known around town as a formidable slam poet, and, for two years in a row, she’s teamed up with Arts Reach and The Kentucky Center for the Arts (KCA) to bring Louisville a ladies-only poetry slam.

But, before anybody started a cypher or dropped a rhyme, Thorton dimmed the wattage on her smile and informed the crowd that she wouldn’t be performing any poems. There was a quick round of boos — this crowd loves Thorton and wanted her poetry. Then the lights dimmed, and Thorton started reading names.

“Sandra Bland. Natasha McKenna. Corinne Gains,” said Thorton, naming women of color who have been killed by police, or while in police custody. She read the names slowly, steadily. For each name that was called, a poet came out on stage, holding a candle. “Tonight, these woman aren’t gonna slam for me,” said Thorton, referring to the poets. “They aren't gonna slam for you,” she added as names of the dead hung in the air.

“They are gonna slam for these women,” she said, her litany complete.

Last Year’s Winner

“Any part of my life, if it can be helpful to someone else, especially a girl who’s like me when I was younger, it’s my duty as a survivor to share that and give someone else hope that they can keep going,” said Tessa Gartin, the 21-year-old winner of last year’s “Lipstick Wars.”

I spoke with Gartin by phone about a week before the big night. I wanted a window into what some of the poets were thinking and feeling, as they prepped for what has become just about the biggest slam in the state. She talked about a lot of things: what it’s like to win, why she slams and what it means to be a woman in poetry. Though she’s been competing in slams for about three years, “Lipstick Wars” was her first big win.

“That was the first big one I’d gotten any recognition from,” she said.

Winning is great, but, for Gartin, it’s not about the prize — it’s about the message. Gartin has post traumatic stress disorder, and a disassociative disorder, caused by abuse “in [her] childhood and adult life.” She talks about the abuse in her poetry, in lines of verse with imagery and sense memory, but, more frequently, she talks about her recovery. Gartin said she was inspired by poets who helped her through dark times. “It is part of my recovery, in the sense that, for a long time, I felt seriously alone in what I was going through,” said Gartin. “There were a couple poets online that were talking about issues that I’ve been through and it brought me comfort.”

Like many slam poets, Gartin has a strong stage presence. This, coupled with her important message, rooted in breaking the silence and stigma around abuse and sexual assault, helped her take home first place last year. She said winning again isn’t important, but admitted, “It’s on my mind, defending my title, but whatever happens, I’m just excited to be a part of it and perform. When I’m on stage, nothing else is going on in my head, and it’s the place where I have the most serenity.”

Photo by Michelle of Miss Zee - Michelle of Miss Zee
Michelle of Miss Zee
Photo by Michelle of Miss Zee

The New Kid

I’m a couple of minutes into talking with Chinnel Williams, before I realize she’s never competed in a slam. I knew she was new to the scene, but I thought it was because the Chicago native had recently moved to town. No, she’s been here, attending school for several years already. But it’s not a crazy misconception — in conversation, the third-year University of Louisville Sociology and Pan African Studies double major spits a fast flow of the political and the personal, and she does it with the confidence of a practiced public speaker.

She started writing poetry in fifth grade.

“When I was younger I never really had a lot of friends. I was kind of anti-social, so, rather than talking to my friend about how I felt about things or talking to my parents — my parents [both] worked two full jobs my entire life — I would just write poems about how I was feeling,” said Williams.

Her personal poetry began to turn political after she joined the debate team in college, and she started writing speeches about the issues. She was also attending slams, and the organizers encouraged her to participate. She eventually agreed and performed one of her poems at one of the monthly slams held at The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, though it was a single poem offered out of the competitive structure of the evening. Slams often include a guest poet.

If you don’t know, many slam poets perform their poems countless times, bringing their best rhymes only for a big slam like “Lipstick Wars.” But everyone has gotta start somewhere.

Since she’s a student at UofL, I asked Williams if writing poetry has affected her studies: “I don’t know … but I know my studies affect my poetry. I’m able to, through research, learn more about other women’s experiences, other women of color’s experiences.”

Some poets have a long backlog of slam-ready poems, and they choose what to perform based on what the audience is responding to, and what the judges seem to favor. Williams knows what three poems she’s going to read. “Two of my poems are about black women and the experiences of black women in society. And one of my poems is about a relationship that I had with someone,” said Williams.

She said she talks about being a black women in a lot of her poems.

“It’s something I have to deal with every single day, and it puts me in a position, I think, to be able to see things differently than a black man, or definitely than a white women,” said Williams.

She said that being a black woman helps her see the world through a broader lens: “Being a black woman, and receiving intersectional impacts as far as like, discrimination and everything, you’re able to empathize more with other groups, like queer women, or transgender women — you get an opportunity to see other groups and see their point of view.”

Chinnel Williams - Michelle of Miss Zee
Michelle of Miss Zee
Chinnel Williams

Backstage Before the Show

When I walked into the Bomhard about an hour before the slam is supposed to start, a group of teens was practicing an India Arie song. A little music is a pretty regular fixture of slams, usually getting featured between rounds as a way to break up the poetry action.

I make my way backstage, and find Thorton to check in and maybe get a quote or two. She’s doing her makeup, and she is a little out of breath. You can tell she’s been running constantly all day, and only just now getting a chance to sit down. I asked if it was easier to put the slam together in its second iteration, and if she feels like she has it all under control. She laughed: “No, I don’t, I really don’t.”

But she talked about the slam’s purpose, and if it’s succeeded. “There’s a lot of women that have come out of the shadows of poetry that are now wanting to compete, and I must be doing something right,” said Thorton. “You know, cause at the end of the day, it’s not really about me, it’s about bringing more women who want to talk about domestic abuse, and being a mother, or going through depression.”

I head back towards the dressing room to touch base with Williams and Gartin, to see how they are feeling preshow.

Gartin seemed calm, but she spoke to the nerves a poet gets: “It’s still intimidating, every single time. You never knows what’s gonna happen, but I get a lot of hope from seeing new poets come up and be brave enough to do it, because the community is always expanding.”

She also talked about how “Lipstick Wars” binds together the performers: “I’m a big fan of the girls talking to each other and giving each other tips. It’s more of a community than other competitions. Rheonna has put together something amazing.” “Lipstick Wars” has a steady social media presence, and many of the performers get to know each other through that platform, as well as during the time spent together backstage. “It’s like a sisterhood,” said Gartin.

Though Williams seemed calm, she revealed that the appearance wasn’t telling the whole story. “I’m so nervous,” she said. “ ‘Cause it’s like my first time performing and competing. But I think I’m not as nervous as I anticipated being when they first asked me [to perform]. I’ve been onstage, they put the lights on me.”

Those lights on the Bomhard stage are pretty bright — the upside being that you can’t quite see the 619 people in the audience staring back at you.

Photo by Michelle of Miss Zee - Michelle of Miss Zee
Michelle of Miss Zee
Photo by Michelle of Miss Zee


And every single one of those seats is full by the time Thorton starts the show with the litany of the dead. Despite her concerns, things run smoothly, aided by the the smooth talking hosts, Nipsey Green and Brandon “B Shatter” Harrison. Harrison is a local poet and poetry organizer, and Green is the founder Smoked Apple Theatre, not to mention Thorton’s husband.

The candlelight vigil is a somber moment, but it sets a mood of righteous anger, a mood for which slam poetry is perfectly suited.

While slams are not explicitly black spaces, frequently the majority of the competitors and audiences are African American. Likewise, Arts Reach, the KCA program that teamed with Thorton to produce “Lipstick Wars,” does not explicitly serve people of color. Its mission is to reach out to underserved communities and bring them to the KCA. Still, the room is predominantly black and female. The poets had a similar demographic — 12 of the 14 were people of color.

It became clear, almost immediately, that the night would lean heavily on the experiences of black women. Self-described big girls spoke on beauty. Colorism  — the value placed on being light skinned — was addressed by darker-skinned women. And, while plenty of cops got called out for their role in the deaths of women of color, the ears of black men must of been burning too, as poet after poet spoke on what they perceived as silence.

Williams addressed it in her first poem, which discussed the death of Sandra Bland, and her last painful breaths, caught on video:

“every single time she breathes

like I do, is our story remembered,

when a black woman dies and nobody grieves?

yes killing our sons is beyond tragic

our men are more than majestic but

what about our queens?”

Watching Williams on stage, it’s nearly impossible to believe this is her first competition. She was on fire. But there was a lot of fire onstage, and a lot of it isn’t local. The competition has drawn poets from Cincinnati, Atlanta, St. Louis and Austin. All of a sudden, this is a national competition, and the competition is fierce. So maybe Williams is just rising to meet that level. While listening to my recording of her first poem, I was surprised to hear myself yelling when she finished — then again, we were all yelling.

Gartin's fist poem is beautiful, measured and graceful. Its central conceit is the idea that pressure creates diamonds, and every woman is a diamond. “I see you diamonds,” she says, looking out at the audience. The message resonates, but the more contemplative poem doesn’t quite match up with the evening’s energy.

Also, in the first round was a stomp-the-floor performance from Austin poet, Shasparay Lighteard. I’ve been going to the Bomhard to see shows since I was a kid, and I’ve never heard a crowd that filled with passion and energy. Her score from the judges is a perfect 30, a ridiculously high score that the audience 100 percent supports, including me. But, it establishes the stakes and raises the bar for the evening immediately.

At the end of the first round, 6 of the 14 poets are cut, including Gartin.

In the second round, the competition is, amazingly, even fiercer. Williams starts strong for her second poem, but hesitates for just a second about halfway through. She was just staring at the audience, seemingly in awe of what she was seeing. It’s the only time it really felt like she was a first-timer. It was a split second, but it was enough to shave a few points off her score, and she got cut at the end of the second round.

Lightheard gets another perfect score in round two, and another in round three. Her cumulative score is 90, a perfect score — she didn’t miss a single fraction of a point all night. I’ve never seen it before at a poetry slam.

But then, I’ve never seen a night quite like the second “Lipstick Wars.” While the poets from all over were certainly on point, there was something else going on in the crowd — something stronger.

As the digital revolution continues to reap the strange fruit of videographic evidence of the system’s murder of black women, and as demonstrations and even riots, once again, become a regular fixture of American life, these women weren’t competing for the $500 first prize.

They came to a room to lift their voices, and lead the voices of the women in the audience to combat the eternal gaslighting that tells them that they are to blame for their abuse, or that they should wait their turn while the movement focuses on the men. They’re fighting to stay sane, fighting to stay alive. Fighting to make people believe that black women’s lives matter.