Pages Matam | Looking for Your Voice? A Poetry Slam Champ Shows You How | TEDxZumbroRiver

Pages Matam | Looking for Your Voice? A Poetry Slam Champ Shows You How | TEDxZumbroRiver

Translator: Martina Cavallo
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Beautiful! Beautiful! I’ve always had an attraction
to language, to words, and how to use them as both
a tool for communication but also as a vehicle for culture. And one of the things
that attracted me the most in language was poetry and spoken word
and performance art, and the way that it really cultivates
a space for active listening. It creates a space for you to be heard. Let me take you a little bit
through the culture of spoken word. One of the things that we
like to say is that poetry, it is not like golf. So, you don’t have to wait
till the poem is over and then go … (Laughter) “Good volley, good volley.” No, no, no, you don’t have to do that. It’s an interactive thing. There’s a constant energy exchange
that is happening. If you hear something that you like,
you snap your fingers. Can everybody snap their fingers?
(Finger snapping) Beautiful! Y’all sound like sexy rain.
(Laughter) You can clap your hands. This is a sanctuary, so if the spirit soul
moves you, you can yell halleluja. You can kick your feet
but don’t kick your neighbor or make the noise of chocolate stuck
at the roof of your mouth, “Mmm.” When I count to three,
can you all go “Mmm”? One, two, three!
(Audience) Mmm. Wonderful!
Y’all are beautiful! So, there is that constant exchange, that thing of the active listening,
that people are responding to you, that all of the energy
that is going out into the audience is coming right back to you
onto the stage and is fueling you. And so, me going into poetry
was not really something liked by ehm … my mother. (Laughter) Coming from where I’m from, I’m originally born
in Cameroon, Central Africa, and having a very traditional,
very strict African mother, telling her that I’m dropping out
of medical school to pursue creative writing and teaching and to do spoken word and poetry
and art full-time was not a thing for her. (Laughter) She pretty much disowned me. We didn’t speak for almost two years. For her, it was always a thing about,
“How is poetry a profession?” “What can it do for you?” “How would it help you reach the sky?” And I knew a lot of that was
her thinking about herself and all of the struggles and the things
she had to go through to be successful, because I know that (French) ma mère,
elle n’a jamais eu des ailes. My momma, she never had no wings, but she could tap-dance on hurricanes
and play poker with death. She couldn’t teach me
how to be a good man, but she taught me
how to be a good human being. How to stand up straight, walk tall,
face forward, be proud of who you are. ‘Cause ain’t much God left in this world, but treat the world like
there’s still plenty God left in you. My momma, she never had no wings, but she, she always fought
to soar in any atmosphere. You would think that she was Shiva,
the way she would juggle her six kids, two jobs, a home, the glory of her crown,
the abusive scars of an ex-husband, without ever skipping a beat. But you know, strong women have
a supernatural way of doing these things. She said that the secret
to her strength was giving her jigsaw puzzle
of a heart to God, the only being
that has ever taken the time in appreciating all of her pieces. (French) Ma mère,
elle n’a jamais eu des ailes. My momma, she never had no wings, but she has always had
this global warming of a smile. Told me to only love a woman who could
melt the polar ice caps of your past. She sat me down one day y’all, and said, “Eh, eh, you better treat a woman
like you would treat me, because if you don’t, I’ll be on the next plane
to slap you back into this country. You’re a Cameroonian man,
we don’t do those kinds of things.” And then, she continues…
(Applause)(Cheer) She continues, “Beware
of the tempting ballad of Jazzy Belles with tuba lips, trombone legs
and a bass line that could turn any man
into a crooked song. And make sure to not sleep
with no one else’s bones but your own.” My momma, she never had no wings. She said, “If you try too hard
to reach for the sun, you will only end up in flames. Do not be a handsome shadow
of Icarus, Son. Learn how to stay grounded, Son. Teach trees about their roots, and never give the world your tears,
only smiles, gift-wrapped in forgiveness, cuz mama said you.” Mama said that a hater is just a person
with their heart all jumbled up because their self-worth and confidence
is drowning in a sea of simulation, that makes the oceans in their chest
nothing but puddles of insecurities. Because those
who show you no love are usually the ones
who need to see it the most. (French) Ma mère,
elle n’a jamais eu des ailes. My momma, she never had wings, y’all, but man if she could still fly, you know. She could care less about gravity when she can bend space and time
between her fingertips. She wears the fabric of the universe
like her second skin, her first being her will
to always survive, right? And so, like, my momma – Shout-out to moms. (Applause)(Cheer) Shout-out to moms. She is absolutely incredible,
and she finally did come around when she saw that I was being successful. Now I’ve become the Director
of Poetry Events for Busboys and Poets, and I run other youth programming
and touring and all; she sees I’m able
to take care of myself and my family. But it gets a little weird
because now she tries to either be my manager,
or she pretty much fangirls me. (Laughter) She would call me from wherever she is,
oftentimes overseas, and she would like,
“Hello, my son, how are you? When is your next poem
going to be on the YouTube? I need to show everybody
how fantastic my son is, because of me he got into poetry
and he is successful.” (Laughter) And I’m like, “Come on, Ma. Come on.” But I know a lot of her fears came out
of all of the pain and trauma and struggle that she went through
in wanting to be successful so that all of her children
can also be successful. This is a thing that I tried to pass on
to the relationship with my own son. So, I have a son,
he is super fantastic. He is nine years old,
he actually turned nine years old today. So he told me to make sure
I tell everybody to get him gifts. (Applause)(Laughter) And if I lie about it, he’ll see
the video later on YouTube, and I will not be able
to get back in the house. So, please, send him gifts. But he is absolutely fantastic,
and he was such a catalyst in my healing, alongside with poetry. And that’s one of the things I always tell
my students and people I do workshops, that poetry can offer you such a space
to create your own healing. And I remember specifically a conversation
that I had with my son where he asked me, “What did you
want to be when you grew up?” And I was immediately shifted
to a time in middle school when my English teacher at the time would
ask me this very same daring question. And she is going around asking
what does everybody want to be. “I wanna be a physician,”
“a firefighter,” “a policeman,” and so on. So, they finally get to me and I’m like,
“I want to grow up to become a cigarette.” (Laughter) People look at me like,
“All right, all right, child. He is the foreign kid,
he doesn’t really speak English. (Laughter) Just let it go, guys. Just let it go.” (Laughter) And I’m like, “No, I want to grow up
to become a cigarette because it is the only thing
that my father can never abandon.” For as long as I can remember, I’d always felt like
a man constantly in reverse, like the backwash of a dream,
like Karma’s favorite crash test dummy, constantly begging someone
for all the love they’d already given me. So, I’d started drinking
and being with women in order to fill up all of the potholes
inside of my spirit. But drinking more Absolut
only made me more obsolete. As I treated having the bodies
of people like mirrors, to try and convince myself
that I could be beautiful in the pleasures that I gave them. But when I was 13,
that’s when I first started building train tracks on my stomach,
some on thighs and arms, to all the parts of me
I wished I could forget. Now all I’m left with is this vulgar smile
stitched to a sense of humor that often hides the boy
with the skin of a scarecrow because it’s the only way
that his corny heart can ward off
all of the birds and the bees. You know, the only thing
that my father ever passed me is this uncanny ability
to hurt the people that we love the most. In a split second, I lost the woman that I thought I loved more
than my third-degree scars. The very next year,
at a random doctor’s visit, I found out that I was alcohol intolerant, that I’ve drunk so much over the years that liquor has become
poisonous to my blood, so my very next shot
could have well be my last. You know, God has a funny sense of humor. He took away the two things
that I harbored on the most to teach me of real love and that women and liquor are not
a cure to your loneliness. “What do you want to be
when you grow up?” I answered, “I wanna become
a pediatrician.” One that helps save and heal children
starting with the one within myself. But who would’ve known,
in the 15 years it took to write this poem that I would grow up
to become a pediatrician, making a stethoscope out of a microphone,
writing poems out like daily prescriptions and turning the stage into a patient room
for the healing of me to start within. Because when you are on the search
for the divine inside of yourself, you’re often led to the harsh realization that you’ve been more Rick James
than First James. With build-in fire escapes
inside of your bones for all the times
that you wanted to run away from the blaze inside of yourself. But what kind of legacy
would I pass on to my son? (Applause) Would I give him a legacy
of just another black boy with hands like ashtrays for him to inherit
the butts of his father’s mistakes? I used to want to grow up
to become a cigarette, made sense because I’m a cancer but there is no chemotherapy
to my astronomy. Yet, I still radiate like a sun
that is afraid to shine but always willing to give
all of his light to save anybody’s sunset; which is all but the excruciating reality
that I do not want to die alone. But I turned to my son and told him, “You know, you can grow up
to be anything that you want. Just make sure to never end up anything but just a small escape
inside of a slow burning pulse, kind of like a cigarette.” So, you know, shout-out to my son. (Applause) Absolutely brilliant human being. Absolutely brilliant. And there is a lot of that
that I carry with me. And that catharsis
that poetry can offer you. I tell a lot of my students
that poetry can be therapeutic but it is not therapy. It just offers you that platform
where you feel like you have a safe space where you can actually
go through your feelings. And a lot of that is being scared. A lot of us are afraid to even write
about many of those demons, and their hurt, their pain,
their trauma, their struggle, but poetry offered me
the language to write about it and then to overcome it as well. And a lot of people don’t do that. They’re like, “I’m not gonna come up here
and tell all of my secrets. How would people perceive me?
And judge me? And look at me?” But I always tell my students,
“You have to write your honest truth. Because if you don’t write your truth,
then someone else will. If you don’t tell your story,
someone else will, and they won’t do it the justice
that it deserves.” And they ask, “What about writer’s block?” Writer’s block doesn’t exist. A good friend of mine told me that writer’s block is not the absence
of imagination and inspiration but it is a surplus of judgement. It’s you telling yourself that
what you’re writing isn’t good enough. But how can your story not be good enough? Because you start writing from here,
then you edit here. You start here with what you feel
and what is so true to you, and then you edit it out. As of late, I’ve been on this journey
of writing a lot about home and being honest about the things
about home that I experienced. Because for a long time, I always thought, “Well, why would people care
about my stories from Cameroon? These things that most people
won’t even be able to relate to.” But I truly had to unlearn that, and getting back
to that intersectionality of language as a tool for communication
and a vehicle for culture. But then thinking a lot
about these stories I want to write and the people
I want to write it to and for are people who will probably never get
to hear or really understand this because I’m writing it in a language
that is not their own. English is only my 4th language, but I had to come to this point
where if I wanted tell these stories, I had to be honest about it. So, I went back to the source. One of the things that always offered me
the greatest imagination, whether it was back home
or here, were cartoons. I used to watch cartoons all the time. To me, cartoons were
a vehicle for culture. Watching shows like Johnny Bravo,
Dexter’s Laboratory or even the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. They were some
of the best English teachers a Francophone immigrant,
like me, could ever have. Their curriculum was riddled
in laughter, impossible exploits, and the daunting task
of saving the world from the aliens. (Laughter) My accent, my accent was
a Saturday morning cartoon; it often riddled orders with laughter, coiling into a language not its own
was an impossible exploit. Still, I was trying to transform
into something powerful enough to save everyone else from the alien and the shame that came
from being made to feel so different, that my accent, my culture,
my breath was too unreal and did not deserve to be so animated. (Cameroonian dialect)
A di na seba, l’anglais linga na titi mwende na d’i pa m’bol pa anglais. (French) L’anglais n’est
que ma 4ème langue. English is but my 4th language. It is the baby of the family,
the one my mouth spoils, favorite by default, who may one day be sold off
by its siblings in hopes to never return because all of my other tongues
have grown so jealous. In my country, we have over 200 dialects. That’s over 200 ways
to say love, to say family, to say I belong to something
that does not want to kill me, that does not want to siphon
the gold from my flesh, or the stories from my bones. See, I was a house once,
full of stories. One for this American dream;
another for all of the mouths of ocean and all of the gospels
still walking in its murky bottom. The last is me,
still trying to translate the catacomb accents
of my parents’ tongues when they would say,
“You have become so American now.” What they would mean is,
“Deport all of that tribe from your mouth. You talk like them now,
you walk like them now.” No more of that Yaoundé stuck in my teeth. Now everything tastes like the steps
to unbirthing a country; which is to say, America sometimes has a way of killing
everything that it comes from. How a passport can feel
like a smooth stamp death sentence. And now, I had to learn
how to fold myself into a flag, stitch myself a newly striped name,
a new set of stars. I passed through customs
but my tongue had to stay behind; which is to say, I remember
when I was too black for Africans and too African for Blacks, but all a meaningless story in America. My name was thick
in chemically enhanced amendments, my name was wishing
for a white picket flesh while living with Section 8 bones; which is to say, that you can be a house but sometimes this country has a way
of reminding you that you are not a home, that you are only the debris,
the aftermath, the constant reconstruction. But all America,
I mean, show us your papers! I mean, who documented your dream? I mean, can the attack dogs
still smell the unalienable right from my brittle and marginalized skin? Because I know that sometimes the bullet, which does not care
which side of the ocean I am from, would swim through my body
all the same. It would try to make a home of me
until my name is by an exit wound blushing in so much cruel history. But I know that my tongue is still
patiently awaiting my return. I wonder if sometimes I will still feel
like a stranger in my own house; which is to say that in this journey,
even as proud as I am of it all, I always hope to remain a language
worth coming home to. Thank you. (Applause)

42 thoughts on “Pages Matam | Looking for Your Voice? A Poetry Slam Champ Shows You How | TEDxZumbroRiver”

  1. One thing I know about good poems is that
    you don't rhyme RIGHT with RIGHT and wings with wings.
    My apologies but I won't give this poet a passing grade.

  2. "America has a way of killing everything it comes from." U.S. immigration policies in a nutshell from a poet's mouth.

  3. “I want to grow up to become a cigarette bc that is the only thing my father doesn’t abandon” wow. Feels.

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