Former slam poetry champion to perform at UAA this week

UAA celebrates a wide variety of art forms on a regular basis. There are art exhibitions, concerts, comedians, dance performances and theater shows all over campus, but one art form commonly left in the dark is the spoken word. There are very few poetry readings advertised around UAA.

 There is one however, Shihan, the 2004 National Poetry Slam Champion, is performing for UAA on Thursday, Feb 2. For junior English major Joseph Selmont, the president of the UAA poetry club, it’s a refreshing change of pace form other shows offered on campus.

“I think it’s really amazing that UAA is willing to bring poets like Shihan up as a way to please the student body,” said Selmont. “I think there are a lot of students out there who like poetry, and it isn’t generally a type of event that is put on at UAA.”

Shihan himself admits that this is often the case when he visits universities. “It’s a difficult art form to promote. And as much as I love it, poetry doesn’t always do that well because most people’s reference to it is that brief period in English class when they were forced to read Walt Whitman, or Shakespeare, or Henry Miller or whatever. And the thing about reading is that when you read something that you’re not interested in, your read it in that uninterested voice,” he told The Northern Light in a phone interview last week.

Shihan went on to say that the other problem with poetry is that it is fundamentally talking and telling stories, and that no one really knows what they are going to get when they go to a poetry reading or performance.

“It’s not like having an acoustic performer coming out; you know you’re going to get a guy playing a guitar and singing his song. Or, you know, bringing out a comedian; someone you know is supposed to make you laugh,” he explained. “So you bring out a poet, and you don’t know if he’s going to make you think, make you feel uncomfortable, make you laugh, make you cry; you don’t know what you’re going to get out of a poet. It’s the hardest thing for people to get a grasp on.”

Poetry isn’t the favored art form it once was, but Selmont believes that styles and performance-oriented poetry like Shihan’s are more accessible to modern audiences.

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“It’s something fascinating to watch,” said Selmont. “Performance is a big part of it. I think body language is something that has been adapted into the slam poetry tradition that you can’t see obviously on the page. That’s not to say ‘on the page’ poetry is bad; they’re just two different beasts.”

Shihan grew up going to poetry readings whenever he had the chance. He later performed his own work, but finding venues wasn’t always the easiest thing to do, despite living in New York.

“The first time I ever went to an open mike was in ’94, but after that it basically became my weekly church. I went to about four or five open mikes a week downtown,” he said. “I was taking a bus an hour and a half each way to get to a poetry spot.”

There are many different forms of poetry, from the romance of Lord Byron to the gothic style of Edgar Allen Poe, and Shihan strives to be just as unique in his writings by reading an eclectic mix of authors and poets and drawing on their influence.

“I got into poetry and writing because I like to read,” he said. “I don’t read only poetry. As a writer, I think the best way to get ahead is to draw from as many [sources] as possible. So just reading poetry books isn’t going to help me as much.”

Of his style and career, Shihan says that one of his greatest achievements is the range of topics his poetry covers – more so than being named National Poetry Slam Champion in 2004.

“An accomplishment that I felt every time I went on that show [“Def Poetry”], is that I did a different type of poem, so I didn’t get pigeon-holed into being the person who just does whatever. It’s important to show a range of material.” he said. “So I think that being on “Def Poetry” more than being the National Slam Champion that year when we had a theme, because I do think putting a score to it [poetry] makes it arbitrary. Any five judges any five days can decide they like something else.”

 Shihan will be performing at UAA on Thursday, Feb. 2 at 7pm in the Fine Arts Building room 150 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets at the door are free to UAA students with a valid student ID, $5 for the general public, and $2 for high school students with a valid ID.