Featured photo: Poet Ashley Lumpkin has been performing spoken word poetry for about a decade. (photo by J Hall)

In 2010, as colorful art strategically clung to each white wall of the small, designated gallery, slam poet Ashley Lumpkin experienced her first and most memorable win. The 18th annual Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam in Knoxville, Tenn. attracted some of America’s most talented artists; that night was particularly important for Lumpkin.

“I was on a team of four or five poets, and each team got to perform four poems a night,” she recalls. “My team needed to win that round of competitions in order to be in contention for the finals.” 

The poet before her performed a piece about his son’s difficulties learning in school that moved the audience to tears. The space was now brimming with cathartic energy and incredible anticipation.

“I walked up to the stage, set the microphone, and it was a very loud moment, but I stepped back from the microphone and waited for the full room to get silent,” Lumpkin says. Then she began to recite “Eucharist: how to make your mother let you save her life:”

it is her body turned in on itself / like some kind of flesh to bone civil war

beaten back with pills and prayer / and second opinions

that all seem to say the same thing / seem to say that the pain she kept tucked

in the pit of her belly is finally trying / to break free

The full poem, which Lumpkin continues to perform regularly, uses detailed religious references and is ultimately about the decision to give her mother a kidney. 

“That poem has never lived in my body again the way it did that night because it came from such a still place,” she says. “They had just heard this beautiful story about the love a father has for his son, so I wanted to talk about the kind of love a daughter has for her mother.”  

Ashley Lumpkin (photo by J Hall)

Lumpkin’s reciprocity, her ability to foster empathy by revealing authentic emotions and quickly gaining the trust of an eager audience partly stems from her background as a high school teacher.

“Shout out to teachers in general,” Lumpkin says. “I feel blessed to have had amazing teachers in middle and high school.” 

Lumpkin, raised in the Church of God and Christ, grew up in Hephzibah, Ga. and attended a magnet school for the performing arts called Davidson Fine Arts in Augusta from fifth to twelfth grade. Though Lumpkin was encouraged to write poetry from a young age because her teachers and classmates deemed her “good at it,” she didn’t realize the power of performing until she received an assignment from her eighth grade language arts teacher, Queen Harrison. Harrison had the class read, memorize and perform many different poems, one of which was Maya Angelou’s famous lyric, “Still I Rise.” 

You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

“Every Black girl in the class was excited,” Lumpkin explains.  “This was our moment, so when we would recite the poem, it was always very forceful.” 

When Harrison showed the class a video of Angelou performing the poem, however, the intention of the piece seemed to change.

“When the class was saying it, it was like we were trying to push our way into rising but when Angelou read, it was so effortless and inevitable, delicate,” Lumpkin says. “It wasn’t just a different recitation, it was like a different poem. Her performance was a unique piece that was related to but separate from the poem as it existed on the page even though the words were the same.” 

Ashley Lumpkin (photo by J Hall)

Lumpkin’s conception of a poem as “a story stripped down to its most essential, an expression of that which is most true,” unites the somewhat conflicting histories of written and spoken word poetry in America. Performance poetry, which can be used interchangeably with the phrase “spoken word poetry,” refers to a poem that has been specifically crafted to be heard by an audience. Spoken word is often performed and judged at slam competitions, but this competitive element is optional. A page, or printed poem, is a poem crafted with the intention of an audience reading it. Lumpkin is aware that many spaces, particularly academic spaces and major publishing houses, tend to privilege page poetry.

“The preoccupation with the written word is a tool of whiteness,” she says. “Any and all aspects of the academy that try to invalidate the spoken word also carry with them the baggage of whiteness and all the ways that can show up. The idea that the written word is somehow richer is ridiculous because people standing around a fire to tell the truth has a much more ancient tradition.”

For Lumpkin the issue comes down to gatekeeping. Public education in this country was eventually followed by integration, which was then followed by the creation of independent schools to deal with integration, she explains. It seems once there were several public spaces for Black people, queer people and other people of color to verbally share their stories, the written word became the institutionally reinforced standard for “good” storytelling. 

“This is why I’m such a huge fan of self publishing because forget going through a gatekeeper, forget the gate,” Lumpkin says. 

Ranging from topics like depression and addiction to the emotional toll of forgiveness and love, Lumpkin’s award-winning poetry portfolio is vast and varied. A strong sense of identity rooted in a beautifully complicated lesson lurks at the heart of many of her pieces.

“There’s tension between my queerness and my faith in the same way that there’s tension between my race and my faith,” she explains. “The thing that is the most true is that I’m a queer woman who loves Jesus. That’s the human experience. To embrace all your contradictions because that’s the most true thing.” 

Ashley Lumpkin sits on the board of the North Carolina Poetry Society and is the coach of Durham’s Bull City Slam Team. Lumpkin is the author of five books and is available to host a variety of poetry workshops, all of which can be found on her website, lumplestiltzken.com. Her latest book, Genesis, is available for purchase at Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro. 

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