On a warm summer night in 2001, I and approximately 200 other Asian Americans spilled out from the Northwest Asian American Theater and into the streets of Seattle’s Chinatown.  We came from all over the country as community activists, spoken word poets, or some combination of the two.  It was like a concert and family reunion all mixed up into one.  It was the first ever National APIA Spoken Word Poetry Summit.


By then I had been doing spoken word, also called slam poetry, also called performance poetry, also called poetry, for many years.  I was transitioning from the emerging artist working in restaurants and pizza delivery to touring artist and arts administrator.  I had been competing in poetry slams on the national level partly because the prize money helped pay my bills, but also because back then it was one of the few times I got to travel nationally and meet other spoken word artists, especially Asian American spoken word artists.


I would bump into Asian American spoken word artists at various gigs throughout the year, and even then we would ask each other, “hey, have you met <insert up and coming Asian American spoken word artist here>?  S/he is dope!”  And every time I met a fellow Asian American artist, heard a poem that touched my heart and made me say, finally, it felt less and less lonely. I felt less like that weird Asian slam poet from Minnesota with issues to someone who was a part of a larger, more complicated family.


Eventually I got an email from a friend of mine in Chicago who said, “heya, are you interested in this thing some of us are talking about trying to put together, it might be a retreat for Asian American artists and activists, or a conference or… a summit.”


Little did any of us know that idea would bloom into the historic gathering in Seattle that connected artists and activists from communities across the country.  It felt empowering for so many of us to just simply be in the room together – let alone be able to share poems, debate politics over Chinese food, and freestyle on street corners.  We packed 20 people to each hotel room and we stayed up all night talking and sharing because for so many of us, we had needed this for so long.


Imagine that you’re the ‘weird’ Asian who does spoken word poetry, maybe you’re the only Asian in your scene.  Maybe people and fellow poets are cool with you, maybe they’re not.  No matter the reception of you, you often feel alone.  You feel crazy for talking about the things you talk about.  You feel frozen into inaction by your own contradictions.  You wonder if your success really has to do with your talent or if you’re getting by because you’re the token Asian.  And then this beautiful gathering happens, with people who understand, who can relate.  No, you’re not the same, and sure, there are still fractures in this imperfect community.  But you get the sense that this is a community that is invested in your existence.  That they want you to succeed.  That you may be unfamiliar but no one wants to treat you like a stranger.


In that weekend in 2001, I heard some of the best poetry I’ve ever heard in my life.  I made some of the best friends I have the privilege to know.  And that mess who was me, I remember finally wanting to live.  Because I wanted to see what this powerful, beautiful family could accomplish.  And that night, when we took to the streets of Chinatown and shared poems for hours, it was like I truly heard myself for the first time. 


NOTE: The National APIA Spoken Word Poetry Summit happens every two years in a different city, and 2011’s summit marking the ten year anniversary will take place in the Twin Cities.

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