To say that CHAUNCEY BEATY is a hard worker is an understatement. As a scholar, Beaty has traveled the world teaching poetry to thousands of students. To say she is a "heart" worker, however, is the ultimate compliment, as you will see. We caught up with Beaty, a featured performer on Season One of Verses & Flow, to discuss everything from her love of slam poetry to her 'slamming' introduction by host Hill Harper.
LA: You have quite the impressive resume, ranking as the 3rd all-time female slam poet in the world (!!!). Let everyone know exactly what a slam poet is, and what drew you into that form of poetry.
CB: Slam poetry is a competitive art form where the audience scores poets on their poetry and performance. Most cities in the United States and many places abroad have city-based and regional competitions; then, the top scoring poets participate at the international level. I am a two-time finalist of the Women of the World Poetry Slam, ranking 6th in 2009 and 3rd in 2010.
I started slamming around 2006 while attending graduate school at The Ohio State University. Slam poetry was founded in the Midwest, and it is a significant part of the art culture there. Besides the politics, I love slam poetry – the community (often referred to as the "slamily"), the varied voices and perspectives, the rigor of the writing from some of the leading contemporary poets. Slam is sometimes misunderstood due to its competitive aspects, but it is a great teacher. I am a better writer and performer because of slam.
Your pieces are known for doing "hard work and heart work." What's the meaning behind that?
My poetry is functional. I draw on my personal life experiences as well as my academic background (particularly research on race, gender, sexuality, and class) to write poetry that does some kind of "work." I take theories and turn them into poetry that everyday people can understand. Then I use the poetry to create experiences where the "work" of the poetry is used as a tool for self and community development. The academic aspects of the work is considered the "hard work," while the confessional parts of the work is the "heart work."
More than the poetry itself, I am interested in the "so what" and the aftermath of the work. As in, how can the knowledge of "hard work" and the vulnerability and transparency of the "heart work" be used to bring about transformation on both micro and macro levels? My desire is to expand who gets access to the knowledge and also who gets access to healing.
Academia gave me the language to make sense of the things that were hard to explain such as racism, sexism— the "isms" surrounding difference in general. But academia lacks heart. My work moves past the head, to get to the heart of things. I want to talk about the heart.
What was the Verses & Flow experience like for you? What did you take away from your appearance on the show?
The Verses & Flow experience was a gift. I was only back in the States for a few days from teaching poetry overseas when I received the invitation. Because I had not been performing, I was a bit apprehensive about saying yes, but I had to trust that I was prepared. However, I must admit, I am glad I did not know the magnitude of the show before I arrived to perform, because it was a really big deal.
It was such an honor to share space and stage with so many great people who are living inside of their wildest dreams. To sit and talk with Cathy Hughes and Hill Harper, to witness the boldness of Angie Stone in live action, and have a long authentic conversation with poets Charles Peters and Professor Ray Grant... [it was] such an honor.
What I take away the most from this experience was how Hill Harper introduced me, comparing Nikki Giovanni and me. That's the ultimate comparison. I was in awe and almost paralyzed after he spoke. It’s humbling. I am still early in my career and while I have a vision for my life, I am still unaware of who and what I will be for the world. If one day, my work does what Nikki Giovanni's work has done for me and so many others, my God, that will be a purpose-filled powerful life.
The piece you performed on Verses & Flow--"Never Have Loved"--seems very personal. What made you want to share that with the world?
Poetry gives us permission to call things into our lives as well as write things out of our lives. I wrote that poem after going through a rough break-up. That was my goodbye letter, closing the door on that relationship. I shared it with the world because it’s universal. Love and pain are something that everybody can relate to.
Every artist says that their catalog has an overarching theme. What story do you want your poems to tell about you?
My body of work tells the story of me becoming a subject, learning how to walk in my fullness, and how to unapologetically BE. It shares the process of the (re)humanization of a Black woman born into a body of abject and object narratives, which taught me that my existence was less than and unworthy. It's the story of liberation and redefinition. It's the story of personal responsibility and audacious possibility. It's the story of deep healing and mending self-love.
for more interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and web-exclusive videos from the
talented poets of "Verses & Flow" in the coming weeks.