State of the Scene: On the List

Benedicto Figueroa | Photograph by Catalina Fragoso
Benedicto Figueroa | Photograph by Catalina Fragoso

Benedicto Figueroa | Photograph by Catalina Fragoso

 

By Benedicto Figueroa

I’m the Slammaster and host of Jersey City Slam in Jersey City, New Jersey. We are a fairly young scene, having been around for about three years. When I began the slam, my goal was to give the amazing poets of New Jersey, specifically Northern New Jersey, an opportunity to have their wildly unique voices heard on a national stage. It had been a long time since a poetry slam had been started in this neck of the Garden State, and the poets were eager and excited. As was I.

I had been to the National Poetry Slam 2010 in St. Paul, Minnesota, as a member of New Jersey’s Loser Slam Team out of Long Branch, NJ. My experience at N.P.S. (National Poetry Slam) that year was life-changing. It was like poetry summer camp. The people were welcoming, the poetry was heart-stopping, and there were friendships to be made all around. I couldn’t wait to share this with the other poets in NJ. I wanted them to be part of this amazing Slam Family.

But soon after registering our slam with Poetry Slam Inc. and preparing our poets for our first National Poetry Slam in 2011, I quickly realized that this slam thing wasn’t all fun and hugs. My experience as a Loser Slam Team member had been incredible. I had been spoiled. I soon learned that there is a whole lot of elitist, shady, and secretive business going on behind the scenes. A lot of it has to do with snarky poet nonsense about who is a ‘real poet’ and who is ‘doing it for the points.’ But there have been rumors floating about in the ether that really worry me.

For the last year and a half, a tension has been building in the slam poetry community. Certain poets have been ostracized, others have gone into hiding, and some poets have been raised to hero status, and none of it has to do with poetry. Recently, a great number of people have come forward to report a string of sexual assaults within the national slam community. These alleged assaults have polarized much of the scene as sides are taken and lines are drawn in this incredibly serious situation.

There had been a lot of talk about a sexual predator who’d been assaulting women in the NY / NJ poetry scene. Most of this talk had taken place on Facebook. All of it had been vague.

As time went on, the rumor mill had churned and people had begun speculating about who the perpetrator could be. But with no victim publicly coming forward, there had been no way of knowing what has really going on. Anyone with any knowledge of the incident had been unwilling to talk for fear of outing the victim and causing them further trauma.

I had brought all these poets together in the hope of sharing something amazing and beautiful with them. But I had in turn exposed them to potential danger. And without any real information to go off of, I felt powerless to protect them. It was around the time of NPS 2011 that I was to attend the Women of the World Poetry Slam in Denver, Colorado. I was taking with me a rookie female poet and an entourage of female poets from my scene to this national competition. I kept thinking that there might be a known rapist here among us, without any idea who it was. I was on edge the whole trip.

How to Identify a Predator at Your High Tea

A few days into the tournament, a pamphlet was distributed. It had been put together by poet/community leaders Rachel McKibbens and Mindy Nettifee. The pamphlet was entitled “How to Identify a Predator at Your High Tea.” Besides the somewhat comic title and sharp wit that ran through it, the pamphlet took a serious and hard look at sexual predators within the poetry community. It warned that the same qualities that make a great performance poet or politician or preacher also make for a great con artist. The text in the pamphlet alludes to specific incidents in the United States in 1999 or 2006, but does not give any concrete information. The leaflet was filled with fantastic advice for victims and those close to them. It was the first big step in addressing this enormous issue. But once again, there were little to no facts to go off of.

Shortly after the pamphlet circulated, I began to hear that one of the male coaches in attendance at W.O.W.P.S. was in fact the predator in the pamphlet. Several times I came upon female poets looking over the pamphlet while sharing their ideas of who it was about. The poet who kept being named was someone that I knew, although not very well, and was a part of the tri-state poetry community back home. My stomach turned.

Besides the fact that it was someone from our regional scene being accused, this poet had also been spending an awful lot of time with one of the young ladies from our group. Several times in those first few days, he had phoned her very late at night (2 or 3 a.m.) asking her to come out drinking or to help him to finish a bottle.

What could I do? I had no proof that he had done anything. No one had come forward to openly accuse him. The only information I was getting was bits and pieces of stories that were retellings of things that people think they thought they might have heard someone else say. At one point, I asked the accused poet if he had heard any of the things that people were saying. I asked him what was going on. He tossed his cigarette into the street, smiled, and said, “Haters are gonna hate. That’s all it is,” and drunkenly stumbled back into the hotel. Fantastic – after three days of asking around, I still hadn’t learned a damn thing.

While all this was going on in, something similar was taking place in Vancouver, British Columbia. At Van Slam, inspired by the “Predator” pamphlet and fueled by the recent coming forward of two rape victims, poet and Van Slam Slammistress Jessica Mason-Paull decided to come forward with her story. And it seemed as though a huge positive step had been taken in confronting and talking about our community’s dirty secret. At Nationals, there was a “Slam as a Safe Space” workshop for female poets. There was a Mama Bear mentoring program put in place that coupled veteran female poets with the younger female poets in case anyone should need a shoulder to lean on or an advocate in more serious situations. Outside of these planned events, the entire tournament buzzed with conversation about how to handle these issues.

At this point, the poet from NY who was being accused of rape had just about been outed. Although there had not been a conviction for sexual assault, the poet was already being treated by many in the community as a pariah and a danger to all female poets. The poet was banned from all but one NY venue. He was asked to step down from various board and coaching positions he had previously held.

The lines were drawn, and many were split in their thinking. Some asked how we could personally convict someone who had been found innocent by the court, while others protested that not being convicted did not mean he wasn’t guilty. The divide began to grow larger. Then someone decided to start a list.
Just days after returning home from NPS 2012, Facebook began lighting up with rumors of a list, supposedly created by a group of female poets. It was a list of both males and females who had allegedly raped, sexually assaulted, or attempted to sexually assault people within the slam community. No one wanted to come forward and take responsibility for it. No one knew exactly how the names on the list came to be there, aside from someone accusing them of one of the above crimes. But still the list was emailed, Facebooked, and text messaged to poets all across the country.

Many poets were outraged to find themselves, their friends, and partners on this list. It was obvious that the “Safe Space” conversation had taken an ugly and irresponsible turn. Whereas the Vancouver incident had been an example of how to go about getting justice while respecting all parties involved, this secret list was an example of reckless and high school-like vigilante justice.

The debate about The List began to boom on social media. Even Jessica Mason-Paull, who had in the past taken great care to avoid publicly naming her attacker, took to Facebook to post this statement in a thread about rape and safety: “Just in case anyone didn’t know–Angus assaulted me twice. I have firsthand accounts of six other assaults. If you want to know what we did at Van Slam to address this issue, check out www.youandiaregoingtodie.blogspot.ca. Now everyone has a list started! You’re welcome.”

People were quick to come out for or against the list, many without actually having seen it. Some of the poets on the list publicly came forward to rally against it, including Brian Dillon and Tristan Silverman. Brian stated that “96% of everything I have ever been accused of is an invention (which I can prove). If I am any indication of the sort of research that was done with regard to the individuals on the list, then we have just partaken in the demonization of several innocent individuals.” Writer Tristan Silverman lashed out at Sonya Renee Taylor, a poet who posted that she had written her own list, saying “it’s all the lunacy of the Salem witch trials.”

We are nowhere closer to resolving these issues. In fact, another Facebook war has begun following the Individual World Poetry Slam. A Canadian poet and contributor to Van Slam’s blog used her time on Final Stage to address rapists in the community. Many members of the community praised her for her bravery and thanked her for taking a stand, while others, like Salt Lake City’s Slammaster Jesse Parent, were concerned about the damage something like this might inflict on the community: “I’m saddened by one of the poems I heard on Final Stage. Even more saddened at the call I got from a woman who is afraid to speak out and be attacked/ostracized for her view. Patriots never think they’re terrorists, heroes never think they’re bullies. Are we identifying the guilty, or hoping they feel guilty enough to take care of the problem for us?”

I love my Slam Family. I love the opportunities and experiences that this silly game we play called poetry slam affords all of us artists. I believe with all of my heart that this community, for the most part, is made up of genuinely good people. But sometimes, even good people do bad things. My hope is that through more conversation, and what will undoubtedly be a very long process, we will be able to deal with this issue in a mature and healthy way. I choose to believe. I have to believe. As a father, a poet, an organizer, and community leader, I refuse to let crimes go unpunished or to let rumors and hearsay guide my decisions or my heart. We have a long and treacherous road ahead of us. But I know that it’s a road we can navigate if we can just join hands and help one another find our way.