“I Used to Love H.E.R.,” and I Still Do

Every poetry slam has a list of unspoken rules that govern its poets, from Writer’s Block’s “No list poems” to the universal rule of “Forget about the scores!” Here at Dayton Poetry Slam, we have one rule above all: “Never date a poet.”

We have witnessed relationships unfold on the stage, poems deconstructing the love two poets once shared, mocking mistakes publicly. Beholding the lack of intimacy between lovers in prose will scare you, especially if you know that they are both in the same room, one in the audience and one on the stage.

Having experienced all of this, I still remember her.

In 2009, I was 20 years old. I had hundreds of poems scattered across a lifetime of notebooks. I was performing, staying up late, mad at myself for not being a poet who could easily memorize his work. I felt like I had to work twice as hard as my fellow poets, and my poetry was only scratching the surface of my wholeness, never fully diving into the pieces of myself. Performing on stage was still a language I haven’t quite figured out, and I went in search of Def Poetry Jam for inspiration.

Russell Simmons created Def Poetry Jam to resemble Def Comedy Jam in 2002. I remember sitting on my living floor in front of the tv, the sound of lungs gasping for words between measures, filling my whole being, and the feeling I got from Def Poetry came up again whenever I opened to a new page of one of my notebooks. Watching people that looked like my uncles and my neighbor Tiffany bare something so personal on national television was inspiring. I wasn’t in love with the Tiffanies in the world of poetry—I was only fifteen—but I respected their truth as confirmation of the stories my mother would tell me about her life.

When I went in search of clips from Def Poetry Jam,  I found something different—Brave New Voices—teenagers between the ages sixteen and twenty gathering in groups, workshopping, and performing in the name of culture and city. I hadn’t even heard of a workshop for poems before then, and here was a world of poets as young and eager as me, gathering all over the United States.

Brave New Voices (BNV) provides young people the opportunity to explore themselves as artists and their inner mastery in front of each other in an auditorium. I fell in love with each and every one of these legends in the making—every girl and every boy bold enough to turn their mouths into shotguns and perform their hearts out. I wanted to be on that stage with them so bad. The experience of a performing poet can be measured by the movement of their body on stage. It was when I saw poets connecting their stories to their bodies that I realized that I was not working hard enough.

So in 2010, I signed up to mentor middle school poets in Chicago for a week and perform in the nightly collegiate-level slam hosted by Louder Than A Bomb, a poetry slam competition that awards a winning middle school team with the opportunity to represent Chicago in Brave New Voices the following year.

My time working with my peers and my students was one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences I could have imagined. Despite waking up every morning and braving the cold of the city, wind bitterly beating my face into a red submission, I felt such a calmness. Just by knowing who I would spend my days with pushed energy through my veins and propelled me toward the workshop space. These people I admired became people I loved overnight. Holding myself accountable, I found my voice on stage and in teaching. I bonded with poems and poets in this week-long retreat that I wish could have lasted years, but I wasn’t disappointed to come home. I was eager to share what I saw and heard with those who wanted to know.

There are many versions of her that I love. “I Used to Love H.E.R.” by Common, a love song for hip-hop, has become my love anthem for poetry. Poetry made me fall in love with language more than anything else. I explored my relationships and failures on and off the stage. I am happy to say that I broke our number one rule with ease; I am always going to be on a never-ending date with poetry.