Tiegan Dakin: Rachel, why performance poetry? Why not simply write your poems and try to get all of them published, rather than perform most of them?
Rachel Wiley: I was a performer first. I have always written but it was a secret sort of outlet. My first passion was acting. I went to school and got a theatre degree but found myself pretty disappointed with type casting and constraint put on fat bodied people. I wound up in performance poetry as some blessed accident. My work is mostly written with performance or a reading in mind. Reading a piece on an open mic is a big part of my writing process.
The publishing world has intimidated me for a long time because I am trained performer, not a trained writer.
I have been working through my insecurities though and submitting more. I am working on a couple new manuscripts. I was really happy with my first book and that whole experience so I’d like a little more of that.
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TD: On the third person biography you have on your website, you call yourself a “body positive activist”. Do you remember exactly how you first earned or gave yourself that label? Would you say that you’re fighting for the confidence of body-conscious women, or is it something more?
RW: I don’t know when exactly I got the title. Someone else referred to me that way when I started using my platform in slam poetry/poetry features to talk about body love/ fat positivity. Writing and performing work about my body started as a way to heal myself from our fat-phobic society. I set out to own my insecurities so no one could use them against me and during this process I found connection with other people who, in various ways, are fighting that same fight.
TD: What was your best slam experience? Why did it stand out to you?
RW: 2011 was my first year with Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam. The team was myself, Ethan Rivera, Jason Brazwell, and Will Evans. It was a team I genuinely loved being part of, having slammed previously on a team with Ethan, spending a few years watching slam, and looking up to Jason (Jason actually won the first slam I ever saw), and then having months before been coached by Will in preparation for the women of the world poetry slam—I was comfortable with these guys. We joked around a lot. We ended up being the first Ohio team to make it to the final round of the National Poetry Slam. We placed 4th out of 70+ teams. Playing the game is always a reward when you’re with a team you love but moving up the ranks and having success with that team is admittedly just a little bit sweeter.
TD: Are you currently doing poetry slams in a team? If not, would you do it again? With the same people, or someone different who you idolise?
RW: I did not go out for the national slam team this year. Last year I did and it was great.
I have become a bit spoiled in that I don’t actually like slamming quite as much when my previous teammate and friend Will Evans isn’t involved. He and I just sort of get each other in terms of competitiveness and strategy and sense of humor. I will always jump at a chance to slam on a team with him. Last year’s team was myself, Will, Xavier Smith, and Fayce Hammond. Fayce and Xavier were both on a writing wrongs slam team for the first time and the 4 of us got along great. I would really love to slam with that team again. It was a good mix of seasoned poets and newer poets. We fed off of each other’s energy really well.
I actually prefer slamming on a team rather than in the independent events. On June 3rd & 4th this year I will be on a team for The Rustbelt Regional Slam. I’m on team Flesh & Blud with Rachel McKibbens, Dominique Christina, and Bee Kapri. I’m pretty excited about it as I have never been on an all woman team before and these are all women I have so much respect and love for.
The list of poets I idolize is pretty long, though the one that sticks out most right now is Gypsee Yo. She used to slam for Atlanta (until she moved out of the country a few years ago)—she remains someone I strive to be more like-her performances always polished, her writing passionate and informative, and her heart is massive. She always has such love and support for all the poets in the room. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in competition and forget that we are doing art and reaching out to connect with people.
TD: Do you have any tips for poets looking to get into Poetry Slams? Or, perhaps, any stories to share that have shaped your slamming experience over the years?
RW: Don’t compare yourself to the other poets in the slam. Concentrate on sharing your work.
Try to bring new work into the slam whenever possible. Developing this habit early means that you’ll have deep pockets and can eventually be a very versatile slammer. The other side of this is to remember that your work is NOT disposable: spend time with the poems you write, and play with the way you perform them. Ideally, you’ll end up with a pocket full of poems you love performing without resting on your laurels.
It can be hard to concentrate during a slam because of nerves, but TRY.
Clap for everyone (the exception being problematic work). Slam is a game but there is a big emotional investment for people, so clap and cheer and let the poets on stage know that you are out there.
Always be reading. It’s one of the best ways to grow as a writer.
When you can’t slam you should hit an open mic: it’s one of the best ways to grow as a performer.
Rachel Wiley is a performer, poet, and body positive activist from Columbus, Ohio. She has a BA in Theatre Studies from Capital University. Rachel has represented Columbus in multiple National Poetry Slam Competitions and was a finalist twice in 2011. She on staff at Writing Wrongs Poetry Slam and the co-host/co-founder of the Columbus QueerOpen Mic. Rachel has toured nationally performing at Slam Venues, Colleges, and Festivals (notably the 2014 Geraldine R Dodge Poetry Festival). She is the author of Fat Girl Finishing School (Timber Mouse Publishing, 2014). Her work has appeared on Upworthy, The Huffington Post, and Everyday Feminism.