This poem is about being queer.
And off they went. Words dancing off their tongue faster than their 10-year-old self could eat lemon lime popsicles. Sophomore Ricky Santuario, president of CalSlam, kicked off the March open mic night with an original poem, a story about their confusing, yet innocent, childhood manifesting into something of an identity. They described the way a wily friendship in their eyes presented disapproval of a sexuality that hadn’t even come into the picture but manifested into questions and a yearning for the innocence that was lost in those moments, radiating a piercing set of feelings of loss and confusion to the audience sitting at the mercy of their words.
Although Santuario is now a master of their craft, so effortlessly manifesting their story into metaphors and rhymes, they started off an admirer like every other audience member. They described being a fan of slam poetry in high school, dedicating their free time to watching youtube videos and admiring poets who were immersed in the art of spoken word. After “slamming” at their first open mic themselves, they fell in love with the art form and the medium it presented for expression.
“Mostly it was realizing that there were parts of my life that I guess wasn’t dealing with,” Santuario said when asked about what got them so invested in the artform. “Writing really helped me unpack a lot what was going on and discover myself a little more.”
The journey from writing down the idea of a piece through practice and development, to the actual performance of a piece is to Santuario as a clay piece would be to a sculptor. As an idea comes to their head, the process of writing sheds the excess clay and gives the structure a shape that can be worked with and assigned meaning to. The actual performance is a showcase of the process — the shining end result of an idea or a struggle that may not be finished, but has been worked through and crafted specifically to convey meaning.
““Mostly it was realizing that there were parts of my life that I guess wasn’t dealing with.”
– Ricky Santuario
“I think it’s both actually performing and writing it that allows you to grapple with things that you’re not usually ready to grapple with,” Santuario said. “Being able to write them and being able to name the things that you’re facing gives you something tangible … and as you write the piece, it helps you slowly work through the issue.”
The journey was certainly evident in Santuario’s piece about their childhood and the innocence that should have been kept intact. Instead, it was shattered by skepticism and the stringent regulations implicit in a heteronormative society.
Santuario explained that they were working with a similar strategy on an entirely different piece, and they were taking the time to work through the guilt that came from coming from hard-working immigrant parents — a reminder of privilege being a result of sacrifice. The work in progress — dubbed “On Drowning” — delves into the effects of this persistent guilt on one’s mental health and stresses the importance of seeking an outlet and finding a balance between feeling that guilt and prioritizing individual happiness.
“Being a first generation, I’ve seen the way my parents struggled so much and worked so hard for me to be here,” Santuario said. “Working through this piece has been a big process of going through what this guilt is, why I feel it, and in what ways can I even talk about it with my parents.”
The expression of guilt and frustration is a luxurious aspect of having a safe space to artfully speak stories that may have been once hidden or unexpressed. Freshman Kelly Baird, a new member of CalSlam, is among many others who have been enticed by the confidence spoken word gives to one’s voice.
Baird’s very first experience with the mic was during their experience attending Berkeley’s new student summer program, bridges Senior Weekend — a program dedicated to giving low income and first generation college students a chance to explore Berkeley. Despite the initial apprehension of performing, Baird said the welcoming support from CalSlam stirred a wealth of positivity that changed her life.
“When I went to my first slam I was really nervous, and I didn’t know anyone there.” Baird said as they reminisced. “When they introduced me they were like ‘This poet is amazing’ and I was like ‘You don’t even know who I am!’ But they looked so confident me that I felt that confidence in myself, and that’s amazing.
“But similar to Santuario, it was Baird’s inspiration for expression and an opportunity to experience the journey of grappling with those feelings and sorting through them artistically.”
It brought back memories of Baird’s very first poem, something originally inspired by the despair of being disconnected with their Japanese American roots. Being a fourth-generation Japanese American, the history of their identity is tangled because of the fear that arose after the World War II Japanese American internment. Baird’s grandparents did not teach their children Japanese or immerse them in the culture for fear of being viewed as the enemy. It resulted in years of distancing from those Japanese roots, something that left Baird torn upon understanding the situation.
But it was a wound that Baird realized they didn’t have to sort through manually through introspection. It certainly wasn’t a wound that could be superglued back into a whole piece. But similar to Santuario, it was Baird’s inspiration for expression and an opportunity to experience the journey of grappling with those feelings and sorting through them artistically. Furthermore, their poetry served as a friend to help them grapple with their struggle with mental health.
“I am mentally ill… and poetry is the next best thing from going to a professional for help,” Baird said. “It’s like talking to a therapist, only the therapist is you, so that’s a really good relationship that you can build with yourself.”
While the art of spoken word presents itself as a universal approach to therapy, the intent behind each poem varies by inspiration and intent. The flow and signature of the poet presents itself at the very construction of the metaphors.
While Baird finds inspiration in sculpting metaphors to express components of the strife they are attempting to express — such as the bell jar in its artfully constructed relationship to depression — Santuario appreciates food as a building block for their poetry and describing the way their mother’s hands have experienced several journeys to creating their meals and the food they find home in.
“(If I had to assign) a metaphor to art … I’d say home,” Santuario said. “I’d say it’d be sitting on a couch with your mom and dad and just eating. That I feel is what art is. It’s appreciating the small details.”
In the end, both Santuario and Baird strive to experience friendship, love and familiarity through each and every piece. Through their art they unpack pieces of themselves and sculpt them into something they can truly see and feel for the first time. When initially the road may have felt bleak upon discovery, the journey of spoken word brings every door and path to the mercy of the poet.
“(To anyone who has a story to speak), this is the place to do it.” Baird said. “People here will take what you have and love it no matter what it is, and they will love you more than what you are. It’s the best place to do it.”