The stage was set for Emtithal “Emi” Mahmoud ’16 at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championship (iWPS). Entering the final round of the competition, she had drawn the last slot for the last bout. Despite the high-pressure situation, she performed a piece she had finished only hours before. And she won.
“I was dazed,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Wait, what? That just happened?’”
The Yale senior was crowned the iWPS champion on Oct. 10. The event boasted an initial field of 96 poets, the largest yet in competition history. The annual four-day competition is organized by Beltway Poetry Slam and Poetry Slam Inc. (PSi), and attracts some of the world’s best poets. In addition to the main competition, the championship includes workshops, open mics, and events for all ages.
YaleNews spoke with Mahmoud about her journey to the top.
Becoming a poet: Despite being born into a family of writers, Mahmoud says she didn’t know what spoken word (performance-based poetry) was until coming to Yale for Bulldog Days. She had written rhyming couplets as a child but never knew this was something she wanted to pursue.
Originally from Darfur, Sudan, her parents worked to raise awareness of the genocide that has afflicted the country. While they initially tried to shield Mahmoud and her siblings from their work, she eventually learned about the conflict.
“They wanted to protect us from what was actually happening,” she said. “When I insisted they tell me, they did. I just picked up a pen and started writing and going on speaking tours with them.”
Her family escaped Sudan to Yemen when she was a toddler before coming to the United States in 1998. During Bulldog Days, she saw a spoken word performance by Sean Beckett ’13 and immediately wanted to learn more about the genre.
However, she was told her freshman year that she would need to audition before she could join Teeth Slam Poets or WORD: Performance Poetry, two of Yale’s spoken-word teams. “Of course I didn’t get in. It was the first time I ever tried,” she said.
She soon discovered ¡Oyé!, spoken word group affiliated with the Latino Cultural Center that does not require auditions. Its name means “hey” or “listen” in Spanish.
“I needed a space where I could grow my art and write for the sake of writing and for the sake of community. I found that in Oyé,” said Mahmoud.
Honing her talents: A few months after joining Oyé, she made the Yale Slam Team, which competes on the collegiate national level. Mahmoud said working under the group’s coach, Alysia Harris, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics, was a transformative experience.
Eventually Mahmoud became co-artistic director of Oyé with David Rico ’16. She also co-coached the Slam Team with Harris.
“It was pretty much an apprentice role; Alysia did all the heavy lifting. I was there to learn, and grow, and do paperwork,” she said with a laugh.
She traveled with the Slam Team and competed at the 2014 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational at the University of Colorado–Boulder, helping Yale to a 9th-place finish in a field of 52 universities around the country.
Creative recalibration: Mahmoud hit a writer’s block her junior year, failing to make the Slam Team that year.
“I was going through a very rough time so I wasn’t very focused on my art,” she said. “I thought I could just come in, and I thought, ‘I’ll be fine. I’ve been doing this for a while.’ It was an important lesson because it made me realize that if you’re not paying attention to the things you care about, you will lose out. There will be consequences.”
She continued to work with Harris, however, and was awarded the Davenport Class of 1956 Fellowship to write and teach poetry to youth that summer. This was a “turning point” in her development, Mahmoud said, because it reminded her of the significance of poetry to her life.
“Poetry was so important to me when I was younger. It really helped me learn the importance of my voice and the fact that we all have a right to use our voice. I wanted to teach that to kids,” she said.
Reinvigorated, she began looking at the national poetry slam circuit and joined a team from New Jersey called Loser Slam. Through the venue, she was able to secure a spot on the iWPS team at the end of the summer.
“I was so surprised! I worked hard, but I was baffled. You don’t expect to suddenly become one of the top poets in the world,” she said.
Unexpected setback: On Wednesday, Oct. 7, she began her journey to Washington D.C. to register for the poetry slam. Instead of traveling directly there, however, she went home to Philadelphia. Her grandmother had been diagnosed with lung cancer earlier in the year, and Mahmoud’s mother was traveling to Sudan to help transport her to a hospital in Egypt that could provide the necessary treatment.
The next morning, Mahmoud was heading to the train station with her dad when they got a phone call telling them that Mahmoud’s grandmother had passed away. Immediately, Mahmoud asked her dad to turn the car around so she could be with her mom.
“It all happened so fast,” she recalled. “It’s really hard to focus on academics when you’re worried about your family, the war, everything. So spoken word has always been an outlet for me to get it out there and then go back to my psets [problem sets].”
She decided not to go to the competition, choosing to console her family and help her parents with some of the logistical issues.
Eventually, her parents sat her down and told her she needed to go to the competition because her grandmother would have wanted her to be there.
“My grandma never learned how to read or write. They didn’t teach women how to do that back then in my country,” said the Yale senior. “Even when she was staying with us here, she was always over my shoulder: ‘Do your thing. Read, read, write.’”
After calling her venue leader and explaining what had happened, Mahmoud was able to get an extension for her registration and traveled to D.C. to compete.
Competition and healing begin: Mahmoud needed to gather her bearings quickly, as the preliminary rounds began that night. She would need to perform two poems both Thursday and Friday nights. The top 12 poets would advance to the final round on Saturday.
Still feeling distressed, Mahmoud used the stage to confront those emotions and didn’t worry about the competition format. “I was just there to expel some of the emotion in poetry so I wouldn’t be there moping and feeling sad,” she noted.
In the two poems she performed Friday, “People Like Us” and “Bullets,” she talks about her memories of a war-torn Darfur. In the former, she notes that “Flesh was never meant to dance with silver bullets,” and she has seen “16 ways to stop a heart.” In the latter, she writes about feeling “guilty” for having refuge in America and for having an escape while others don’t, noting that her “body should be lined with bullets: one for each of my brothers and sisters who stopped a bullet for me.”
Both poems received perfect scores. Only three other artists had achieved a perfect score in the preliminary round, and none received two. Mahmoud’s excited coach called her later that night to tell Mahmoud she had made it to final stage.
A tribute: There was only one slight problem, said Mahmoud: She had used her best poems in the preliminaries. It was already midnight when she found out about moving to the finals, but her coach told her not to worry — that she would be fine.
“I looked at the list of poets who were going to be there, and it was some of the most well-known spoken word artists in the world: Rudy Francisco; Porsha O, last year’s winner — just a lot of people who were very high caliber,” she said.
Despite considering herself a “dark horse,” Mahmoud wanted to do well in the finals for her grandmother. The next day, she wrote a poem about her grandmother and finished a half-written poem about her mother. Already pressed for time, Mahmoud had only three hours to memorize them before she needed to perform them.
The final round was divided into three bouts with the four lowest-scoring poets being eliminated after each bout. Mahmoud advanced to the final bout after finishing fourth and third in the previous two bouts. She had decided to save her poem about her mother for last and ended up drawing the last slot for the final round. Midway through her poem, the audience began giving her a standing ovation.
“It was the craziest thing. People were so receptive; you could lose yourself on stage and everyone was there to hold you,” she said.
Mahmoud received another perfect score for her poem and won the competition by one-tenth of a point. Amazed by her accomplishment and overwhelmed by the support she received from the audience, she thanked them for “being the community that they are” and dedicated her victory to her grandmother.
Therapeutic poetry: Her whole experience with iWPS underscores the therapeutic benefits of poetry, according to Mahmoud:
“I came away from it feeling much better than when I went in and feeling like I did something for [her grandmother],” she said, “But at the same time, I’m left in this very bittersweet state because of the genocide and the war. This is the first death in eight years in my family of natural age and natural causes.”
She said her grandmother’s death felt “weird” because her grandmother had “survived everything,” adding that she would not have been able to win the competition without the support of the community around her.
“Things get hard and, without the communities and environments that allow us to thrive, we would fall every single time,” she explained. “If I didn’t have the kind of support I have here, in the spoken word community, and everywhere else every time something like this happened, it would take everything out of me.”
Acknowledging how hard painful experiences can be, Mahmoud said she thinks it’s necessary to confront those emotions instead of allowing them to “become a part of you” and take control. The reward, she says, is having a greater inner peace with everything that happens.
She said she hopes her win will give her a platform to inspire others to pursue poetry and make it accessible for everyone. In addition to being crowned the iWPS champion, Mahmoud will travel on behalf of PSi to teach poetry. She is currently working on a book filled with poetry from the classes she teaches through a Creative and Performing Arts award, and the iWPS position will also allow her to publish a book of her own poetry.
Mahmoud advises aspiring poets to continually read, write, and listen to poetry. She said she is happy that Oyé will remain audition-free because she thinks everyone deserves to have a safe space where they can grow as an artist.
“The most important thing is understanding the mic and what it is all about,” said Mahmoud. “It sounds like a big, abstract concept, and I’m not trying to romanticize it, but when you go up there on the stage, you have a right to be there. Anything you say is worth listening to; your exercise of human expression is important. And I think that’s the most important thing to remember.”
To read more of Mahmoud's poetry, follow her Facebook page. Her final poem, "Mama," is reproduced below.
I was walking down the street when a man stopped me and said,
Hey yo sistah, you from the motherland?
Because my skin is a shade too deep not to have come from foreign soil
Because this garment on my head screams Africa
Because my body is a beacon calling everybody to come flock to the motherland
I said, I’m Sudanese, why?
He says, ‘cause you got a little bit of flavor in you,
I’m just admiring what your mama gave you
Let me tell you something about my mama
She can reduce a man to tattered flesh without so much as blinking
Her words fester beneath your skin and the whole time,
You won’t be able to stop cradling her eyes.
My mama is a woman, flawless and formidable in the same step.
Woman walks into a warzone and has warriors cowering at her feet
My mama carries all of us in her body,
on her face, in her blood and
Blood is no good once you let it loose
So she always holds us close.
When I was 7, she cradled bullets in the billows of her robes.
That same night, she taught me how to get gunpowder out of cotton with a bar of soap.
Years later when the soldiers held her at gunpoint and asked her who she was
She said, I am a daughter of Adam, I am a woman, who the hell are you?
The last time we went home, we watched our village burn,
Soldiers pouring blood from civilian skulls
As if they too could turn water into wine.
They stole the ground beneath our feet.
The woman who raised me
turned and said, don’t be scared
I’m your mother, I’m here, I won’t let them through.
My mama gave me conviction.
Women like her
Inherit tired eyes,
Bruised wrists and titanium plated spines.
The daughters of widows wearing the wings of amputees
Carry countries between their shoulder blades.
I’m not saying dating is a first world problem, but these trifling moterfuckers seem to be.
The kind who’ll quote Rumi, but not know what he sacrificed for war.
Who’ll fawn over Lupita, but turn their racial filters on.
Who’ll take their politics with a latte when I take mine with tear gas.
Every guy I meet wants to be my introduction to the dark side,
Wants me to open up this obsidian skin and let them read every tearful page,
Because what survivor hasn’t had her struggle made spectacle?
Don’t talk about the motherland unless you know that being from Africa
means waking up an afterthought in this country.
Don’t talk about my flavor unless you know that
My flavor is insurrection, it is rebellion, resistance
my flavor is mutiny
It is burden, it is grit and it is compromise
And you don't know compromise until you’ve rebuilt your home for the third time
Without bricks, without mortar, without any other option
I turned to the man and said,
My mother and I can’t walk the streets alone back home any more.
Back home, there are no streets to walk any more.