Using Spoken Word Poetry to Foster Inclusivity in Writing Centers

Nataly Dickson | Texas Christian University

On January 20th, 2021 Amanda Gorman became the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. Her spoken word poem “The Hill We Climb” described America as a country that “isn’t broken but simply unfinished” during President Joe Biden’s inauguration (00:53-00:57). Gorman broadly discussed the country’s losses but also provided a hopeful outlook on its future. Her use of spoken word poetry provided Americans an opportunity to just listen. And, while nothing is without response, spoken word poetry proved once again to be powerful.

Specifically, this power occurs when Gorman places herself within the recognition of America’s continuous grappling with its racist past and the reality of the “American Dream”. She says,

“We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one” (00:58-1:14).

Not only does Gorman confront America with its flaws but through the performance, her poem embodies the truth which many people from marginalized communities experience as it relates to the “American Dream.” Spoken word poetry provides one way for these truths to set in.

When I listened to Gorman’s performance and had an opportunity to discuss the poem with my colleagues, I was drawn to the genre of spoken word poetry. More specifically, I was drawn to how Gorman was embodying her message. I am not a creative writer but as someone who studies rhetoric and composition, I saw a parallel between the genre and one of my areas of focus: writing center studies. My past experiences as a writing center tutor and as an assistant director of a writing center helped me imagine what it would mean to place spoken word poetry in the writing center with the possibility that tutors could listen to what is being said by writers like Gorman. Gorman’s work, and the broader question of connections between spoken word poetry and conversations about writing centers and race, raises the following questions: 

What would it mean to make the performance of spoken word poetry more common in writing centers? How could spoken word poetry, especially written and performed by writers from marginalized communities, help foster inclusivity in writing centers?

In order to consider these questions, let us take a step back. Writing centers started as writing clinics or writing laboratories where “remedial” students were sent to meet the standardized writing levels required in colleges and universities. As a result, writing centers were negatively perceived and have continuously struggled with these perceptions. In his article, “The Idea of a Writing Center,” Stephen North voices his frustrations with those who perceive the writing center as places where students can get their papers “fixed.” Although an older piece, this article is continuously one of the most referenced texts in writing center scholarship because of the notion that writing centers should be about making better writers, not better papers. While North’s frustrations are appropriate, and many writing center enthusiasts voice these frustrations as well today, one thing is worth noting––no matter what we are “making better,” to make it better would mean to place it against the dominant standardized English. 

North’s article, however, valuable in its emphasis on making better writers, neglects to question the intersection of race and writing. The gap, though I am not the first to address it, does raise the following questions: 

Who are the writers being sent to these “remedial” spaces? Why might these writers bring themselves to these spaces? 

It may be of no surprise to us that the answers to these questions are marginalized students. As a result, I also ask:

What levels of vulnerability do these writers feel when walking into the writing center knowing that their writing does not reflect the white dominant standard?

Writing centers continuously need to find better ways for writers, especially marginalized writers, to be well served in these spaces. My research revolves around questioning how writers like these, usually with two or more intersecting identities or hyphenated identities, impact or are impacted by writing spaces. Through this already established interest, I began to explore other spoken word poets whose work expresses this grappling with identities. I imagine placing spoken word within the writing center to see how this genre could change the space. In order to showcase how spoken word poetry can foster inclusivity in writing centers, I bring attention to Ariana Brown. 

Ariana Brown is a queer Black Mexican-American poet from San Antonio, Texas. For the past ten years Brown has been writing, performing, and teaching poetry and has received a various number of prizes for her work. Brown’s poetry explores the intersection of being Black and Mexican-American and “explores the histories of Black people in Mexican, Mexican-American, and Latin American spaces” (“I BELONG IN MY COMMUNITY”: A CONVERSATION WITH ARIANA BROWN”). Through a brief observation of her work, we can begin to imagine what the practice and performance of spoken word poetry can do to transform the writing center space to a more inclusive one.

Brown’s exploration of the intersection of the Black, Mexican-American, and Latin American spaces begins through the title of her debut poetry chapbook, Sana Sana. The title refers to the Spanish folklore which states, “Sana sana colita de rana. Si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana.” This folklore is said to children when they hurt themselves and essentially translates by ensuring to the hurt child that if they do not heal today, they will heal tomorrow. In an interview, Brown takes this a step further by stating that she sees the performance of poetry as a ritual or ceremony. She even shares that spoken word poetry is a form of therapy which requires community. Lastly, she emphasizes the importance of the audience to the performance of poetry and the relationship between performer and their audience (Flores).

How might Brown’s approach to viewing spoken word poetry as a form of therapy bring tension into the writing center, especially when considering, for example, the format of writing center consultations? In my experience, writing center consultations have been one-on-one, at times have been rigid due to the tutor being seen as a type of  authority figure, and ultimately, writers tend to receive feedback based on the white dominant standard of language and writing. I use Brown’s aspirations for her poetry to bring healing through community by moving away from the typical format of writing center sessions which allow the tutor to give feedback based on the standard whereas the writer may just need to be listened to. This could also serve as an opportunity for the tutor to learn from the writer. The tutor may ask themselves: what am I learning about this writer’s life through their creative work? What might this work teach me about identities and histories unlike mine? How can I take the time to ask the writer what they need versus immediately falling back to the usual methods of discussing writing? This is work that I want to continue researching and hope that what I share here serves as the inception for others interested in similar conversations. 

The following lines from Brown’s poem “Dear White Girls in my Spanish Class” are examples of what it might mean for someone like Brown, who embodies multiple identities, to come into the writing center space and unmake the space, meaning that Brown’s presence and the conversations she is bringing forth through her poetry can be another way writing centers uncover the racism in these spaces through this grappling of her identities. In this poem, Brown discusses the intersection of being black and Mexican-American through talking about the Spanish language.

Brown begins by addressing the white girls in her Spanish class:

“I bet you thought this class would be easy, since Spanish is what poor brown people speak right? Not something you actually have to try to understand, not fancy or sophisticated, not like French.” (00:37-00:47)

Later, Brown brings her Mexican grandmother into the poem:

“You are the reason my grandmother feared her children would speak with accents. So afraid, she buried her first language in the space between blood and bone because your grandparents wouldn’t let her make a home outside her body.” (00:55-1:07)

Then, Brown ties her Mexican-American lineage with that of her father’s:

“Don’t you know I had to fight for this? For each scrap of culture I could get my hands on, even if its lineage is as European as yours. My father, a Black American man, is descended from slaves. I am not sure if you understand what that means. I am descended from slaves. I wanna know where I come from, but I can only trace my history in one direction. So, I am here, in yet another Spanish class, desperately reaching for language I hope will choose me back someday.” (1:55-2:23)

Similar to Gorman’s poem, Brown’s poetry invites the audience to listen to the struggles which many marginalized communities face, while also using performance to heal from the histories of her communities. By welcoming the practice and performance of spoken word poetry like Gorman’s, Brown’s, and that written by the marginalized writers amongst our college and university communities, we can both provide them an opportunity to share, practice, learn, and be heard. Subsequently, if the writing center wants to foster inclusivity, this can be one way to question how it is responding to students from marginalized communities. Ultimately, this will show that there is no room for the harms of the white dominant standards of writing present in this space. 

In order for writing centers to use spoken word poetry to foster inclusivity, I envision that the first step in doing so is making it clear that writers can bring creative writing pieces into the center. In my experience, it was very uncommon for writers to bring creative pieces to a tutoring session, let alone spoken word poetry. The genre of spoken word, especially its performance, disrupts the privileged forms of composing happening in these spaces as well as the one-on-one consultation format between writer and tutor. In this case, writing center directors can emphasize writer agency when tutors encounter creative pieces. Regardless of the experience the tutor has in working with these genres, employing active listening versus resorting to the usual need to provide feedback can better support the writer especially if they are writing about themes similar to Brown’s.

Another important step is providing a space for writers to practice and perform their spoken word poetry. Whether you are at a community college, university, or in a K-12 setting, having a space where writers can go to work on their poetry is useful. There are various writing centers who are well-known for doing just that, such as the Salt Lake Community College Community Writing Center and the Stanford University Hume Center for Writing and Speaking. (Thanks to Dr. Nathalie Singh-Corcoran for bringing my attention to these writing centers which are doing similar work to what I propose here). On an additional note, if a college, university, high school, etc., does not have a writing center, finding a space in the library, student union, or any room where writers know that they can gather to practice their work, would suffice just as well. Reaching out to the manager of a building like the library for a room request could be a great start in establishing a meeting space, especially if you are able to reserve the room consistently. This space does not even have to be tied to a college or university. In his book, Digital Griots: African American Rhetorics in a Digital Age, Adam J. Banks purposefully decides not to use institutional spaces to meet with the community to discuss writing, literacy, and social issues. He went into his town, avoided choosing community gathering spaces, and instead walked into a local restaurant and asked if he could use a part of their space to discuss writing. Nevertheless, the space should work to invite people to discuss, practice, and perform their creative pieces.  

Community colleges, universities, and K-12 settings could also consider including spoken word poetry in writing spaces by dedicating times or events for practices and performances. The Miami University Howe Writing Center specifically works in conjunction with Miami University Spoken Word, or MU Speak, a group of writers who utilize the writing center space to host various events such as poetry slams and writing workshops for writers of all skills and levels. Personally, when I began this project I imagined the possibility of the writing center hosting an open mic night style event where writers, especially from marginalized communities, can perform their creative writing in this space. Imagining the writing center space move from one-one-one consultations to a space where there can be a better relationship between performer and audience, like Brown suggests, will support writers that may, at first, feel vulnerable about their writing especially when performing their work. Through an open mic night event, however, writers can know that the center will not revert back to its usual methods of engaging and assessing writing against the white dominant standard. To be more specific, these events can be in celebration of National Poetry Month. Each week of the month of April could have a focus like women writers, poets of color, local poets, etc.

No matter how writing centers or writing supporters invite writers to present their spoken word poetry, I believe that there is potential to transform these spaces into more inclusive ones. Because in order to listen and learn from writers like those who have been excluded and silenced, we have to provide the space first.

Works Cited
“Ariana Brown- “Dear White Girls in my Spanish Class” @WANPOETRY”. YouTube, uploaded by Write About Now, 12 November 2017, https://youtu.be/sAbbGEEstjc 

Banks, Adam J. Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age. Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.

Flores, Joseph. “Ariana Brown on “Sana Sana”. MUD. http://www.wetdert.com/2020/01/22/feature-ariana-brown-on-sana-sana/?fbclid=IwAR2NOyec3ezDL5Yie7i-VUjRUlLcG1Wo-hW6id7Vu3tpTW2VFXvKz4DKBO4. Accessed 6 April 2021.

North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English, vol. 46, no. 5, 1984, pp. 433–446. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/377047. Accessed 1 Apr. 2021.

“Poet Amanda Gorman Speaks at the Biden-Harris Inauguration 2021.” Biden Inaugural Committee. YouTube. 20 January 2021. https://youtu.be/_U6IKviDWFs

“Roger and Joyce Howe Center for Writing Excellence” Miami University. https://www.miamioh.edu/hcwe/hwc/writing-resources/creative-writing/index.html. Accessed 5 Oct. 2021.

Willis, Mia S. “I BELONG IN MY COMMUNITY”: A CONVERSATION WITH ARIANA BROWN”. The Adroit Journal. https://theadroitjournal.org/2020/04/06/i-belong-in-my-community-a-conversation-with-ariana-brown/. Accessed 6 April 2021.

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