“Women are told what to do with their mouths,
When and where to swallow
From birth, we learn to open wide
Spooned milky submission, and force-fed silence
Until our tongues turn heavy utensils we do not know how to use…”
were Annie Livingston’s jaw-dropping opening lines for the first Grand Rapids Mentally Distilled Poetry Slam in February.
Annie went on to paint linguistic landscapes of how women are so often forced or pressured to apologize for their actions, desires, and sheer existence. Her poem traveled through historic harassment and discrimination, touching briefly on the issue of sexual violence, ending with the more hopeful line: “You were born to swallow the sky and sing it back out.”
Annie slammed twice more that night, taking home first place bragging rights and a slew of prizes – including this article write-up – from the inaugural Mentally Distilled slam. Her second and third poems brought more hype and emotion from the audience, exploring the topics of collections (if you were in attendance, you might remember her mother’s wedding dress obsession) and sexual assault and the haunting of past memories.
Of “Women are told what to do with their mouths,” Annie said, “It actually came out of a different poem… It’s something I’ve been fooling around with since October. This poem is kind of like a chant or anthem kind of thing,” as compared to her norm, which we would affectionately call “literary poetry.” Her unique blend of language, imagery, and performance clearly refreshed and inspired the crowd and judges at the slam, as she beat out more than a dozen other poets (including myself), who may have to reconsider what they call ‘poetry’ if they want to earn a spot on the Mentally Distilled slam team.
About the difference between “on-the-page” poetry and slam, Annie said, “Recognize that they’re two different things and marry that… People don’t understand how hard that is to do. I really struggle with that because I feel like so much of the slam community is negative. I have a hard time fitting that [negativity] into what poetry should be. I think poetry should be a meditation on what is beautiful and right in the world. [Slam] is so often spiteful, but it’s not what I want to do.”
She would rather, she admits to me, strive to write like Sarah Kay, “who gets up and talks about love… a love letter from a toothbrush to a bicycle. That’s what I want to write poetry about.”
She is also inspired by Glenn Shaheen, who is a guest professor of creative writing at Grand Valley State University this year. “I was so mad they cancelled his [Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters] reading… When he read at Cook DeWitt, that was amazing. He had this one poem about cabbages that was amazing,” she remembers. You can check out his incredible work here.
Annie grew up around poetry. She played a rhyming game with her mom as a kid, and it was that everyday normalcy that got her hooked on poetry. But it wasn’t until high school and college (Annie’s only a sophomore at GVSU) that she began diving into the world of poetry. “I’m indebted to my best friend Mia,” Annie told me, describing how Mia came up to her and said, “You like books. Check out this thing called spoken word.”
She checked out Button Poetry and this “thing called slam” and fell in love. “I’m a theater dork, so the writing was… [the best] way to express myself” since it combined elements of performance with the beauty and honesty of language.
“I have a few poems that I meditate on,” she continued. “Jane Hirshfield’s “A Person Protests to Fate” is about [how] things are only really difficult in the beginning and end of life. The’res this one line… “training the cat to stay off the table.” I think about that [line] a lot when I’m writing, how to ‘fill the middle’ when I’m writing.”
When I asked her about her experiences as a performer, she had to think a minute. “I guess I feel pretty scattered about that,” she finally said. “This slam thing is really cool, but I feel like I’m not able to participate in the Grand Rapids poetry scene.” (She’s not yet 21.) “My poetry background is much more literary than slam. I went to Aquinas my senior year [of high school] to take all these poetry classes. I think in terms of background, I just devoured everything I could get my hands on.”
Annie and I traveled together to Chicago for the National Collegiate Honors Council Conference in November 2015, where we participated in the Poetry Master Class and met poetry geeks from all over the country. “NCHC made me remember this is what I want to do with my whole life. Caroline Orth [one of the participants] told me, “I like books, but I exclusively read poetry.” I was like, “What do you mean you exclusively read poetry?””
Since then, Annie, too, has begun reading more and more poetry. Yes, it is possible, she says, to just sit and read an entire collection of poems. Not a novel. Just poems.
I want to know how Annie creates such gorgeous, alive metaphors.
“You want to know how I metaphor?” she jokes. “Until it feels right. I know that sounds really silly, but the drafting process is such a horrible monster for me that I don’t really have a simple answer. I don’t really give up on [my poem]. In terms of metaphors though, I try to pick up the object that I’m writing about mentally and try to see it from all these different angles… until you’ve exhausted it. First I take everything out of it I can. Then I go back and get rid of what doesn’t work. I think it’s a good way to write in general. It can’t hurt to put more on the page [than] you need.”
In the past, Annie has performed at Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University, and at the Sheraton in Chicago. This summer, she’ll be hitting up North Carolina for an eight-week residency art program for college-aged women called Arete Seminar, and her poetry is forthcoming in Brainchild.
Her final advice for other writers?
“The poem should stand on the page, and it not have to be on the stage to be a good poem. I don’t want it to be another poem to just throw away, and I’ve definitely written those. In terms of just poetry in general, I think there’s this need to leave no stone unturned when it comes to writing. I try to write about what I know in a new way instead of writing about everything on the planet.”