In their first post-election 60 Minutes interview, the President- and First Lady-elect said they’d like to open the White House up to the people. They mentioned poetry and jazz.
I knew that Michelle Obama had seen spoken word and poetry slam poets while in Chicago, so I called them. I reminded myself that their house, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is our house, too. I’m Dutch (my middle name is Roelof) and it has been ingrained in me since I was a wee child: be responsible for your dollar. If someone is taking your money, they owe you. That is how I called the White House—my cash pays for the food there so why wouldn’t I call? At least that’s what I told myself. And the Obama’s are Chi and I’m Chi. I love Hyde Park . . . I’m finishing up a degree at the University of Chicago . . . I have met Barack Obama before when he was working a fund-raiser in Will County. It would almost be stupid not to call them. Right? Right? A poetry slam at the White House; a certain je ne sais quoi, no? I called in late March.
An early conversation went from, “Mail us a letter,” to “Poetry Month is when?” to “Wait while I get so and so on the phone,” to “Here are some cell phone numbers . . . let’s do this.” This statement is not my ego speaking: First Lady Michelle Obama and her staff should be commended for giving me the opportunity to work with them on bringing poetry slam poets to the White House. That is to say, the policy of CHANGE has been thrown around so long for two years that to have this small show come from a high school English teacher, a poetry enthusiast of modest means—I think this says something positive about the new climate at the White House. The White House could have easily invited academically titled poets for a poetry night. Instead, they dug from the roots of the poetry slam world created by a former construction worker from the southeast side of Chicago. The everyman is one of the underlying guides to the poetry slam. Marc Smith is “For the Little Guy.” (Audio sample on Amazon.)
And here it is, poetry slam at the White House, er, kinda.
My high school students, my family, the different artists I spoke to—all were very positive about, even proud of my travels to the White House. I felt as though I was going as an emissary for those who could not go. When I arrived at the East Gate, early in the evening on May 12, I was allowed in with Zach Braff and a beautiful and corky congresswoman from Arizona; Spike Lee and George Stephanopoulos were in front of me. They were cool. I, on the other hand, had bags of gifts for the First Family. The candy bar and pop shop at my hotel gave me plastic bags to put my gifts in. So I walked in with a bag of sweatshirts, some books, and other small items. As the cool ones kept going, I gave my bags to security staffers and told them, “Okay, the sweatshirt is from my high school, it is for Barack, it is our basketball sweatshirt and a little bigger. The other bag has T-shirts for the girls. They might be a little big right now. And these books are for Michelle, I think she’ll like . . . ”, as people, dressed to the nines passed by, I could hear them chuckling. I’m good with that. I was there on the back of others and trying to be responsible.
As I walked in it was a bit surreal. I gave a big smile. I tried to digest the history of the house. But as I climbed the steps to the East Wing, I immediately felt less hold on tradition. I saw one of the old slogans for the poetry slam (I’m not sure it was true), “This ain’t your grandmother’s poetry.” As I walked in there was a DJ, a Mac laptop, two speakers grinding out beats, youth, diverse faces, and a bar: this ain’t your grandmother’s White House. It was full-on junior prom—save for the open bar. People were hiding and not hiding in corners. Pictures were flashing constantly. It was a far cry from walking into the Green Mill and having Smith stand there, greet you and try to set a scene. The people here, like me, were a bit overwhelmed and star-struck. There were some hand shakers. There was some whiskey being poured (don’t listen to the NPR reports about this being a white-wine event only. I’m sure some drank wine, I know many didn’t drink at all, but others . . . well). This was less about a poetry show and more about being in an intimate space with a small amount of people and the President and First Lady. I don’t think that is necessarily true for the First Family, or the staff, but it is hard to get past the surroundings and the who-was-there to get to the art. I didn’t know what my role was, what I was looking for by helping with this thing. Was I being honest?