A native of Albuquerque’s South Valley, Jasmine Sena Cuffee has been active in the Albuquerque metro area arts community for nearly 10 years as a performance poet. Jasmine was a member of the 2004 Poetry Slam team, 2005 Youth Poetry Champion, and 2007 City Slam Champion.
As a performance poet and slam poetry champion, Jasmine has led numerous writing workshops and performances throughout New Mexico and the Western U.S. for grades K-12 and beyond. She has appeared in the Bigger Boat Anthology, Earthships: A New Mecca Poetry Anthology, and ¿De Veras? She is currently working on her first manuscript, Where the Arroyos and Train Tracks Meet which will be the follow up to her first chapbook Sunshine and Rapture released in 2007. Aside from poetry, Jasmine manages Public Allies New Mexico, an AmeriCorps program that focuses on leadership development for young adults to promote social change by strengthening non-profits, communities, and civic engagement.
I had the pleasure and honor to interview Jazz about her experiences being a woman in Poetry slam. Listening to Jazz both during the interview, and as I transcribed the interview, I found myself becoming more and more motivated. There is nothing like listening to another writer/poet/artist to get the Creative streak in your blood moving.
This is the Weekender and the interview will be posted both Saturday and Sunday with one of her amazing poems on Sunday’s post. So, grab a cup of java, tea or whatever and check in both days! Enjoy!
Liza Wolff-Francis: Thinking about you starting out as a young woman in poetry and really now you are encouraging other poets. How do you think young women or women in general can support each other as poets and as artists?
Jasmine Sena Cuffee (Jazz): That’s a good question. Especially for young women. It’s funny, when we talk about women in slam, oftentimes we talk about older women and we don’t notice that the new-comers to slam, the people who say, “I’m going to try this out,” are mostly young women, as young as 13, but usually about 16, 17. They’re the ones who, and I think more than young males, though I don’t know because I haven’t done a study about it (laughs), but what I see at slams, is the people who are maybe virgin to the microphone are usually young women.
I think what drew me, especially having a little understanding of what slam is, because I watched the documentary “Slam Nation,” which was filmed in ’96 or something. That’s what got me, the women on the stage. Being like: “Look at these ladies going up on stage and saying these beautiful words or telling these sad stories, that was powerful for me, so I feel young women will always gravitate toward slam because they see other strong women in slam and the way that we support each other is that encouragement.”
Encouraging them to come to slam, not even coming to come slam, but come and check it out, see if you like it, see if you’re moved by something, see if you relate to a story, even if that story isn’t primarily focused on the women that are there. Just come check it out. Write something. What are you writing? I think asking a lot, especially being a host, when I see young women sitting at a table and I’m setting up for a slam, I usually ask, “are you reading tonight?” and it’s like, “no, no I could never do that.” Right? And it’s like, of course you can. Where do you go to school? What do you like to do? You never thought about writing? Why did you want to come tonight, just to listen?
I think being able to just approach women, especially when they’re sitting by themselves- to make them feel welcome. That’s what you want to do to build that trust. Here’s the stage. Here’s your words. I think a lot of times, as women, teenage girls, there’s a fear of saying what’s on your mind because either your parents will get mad, or you know the guy you wrote a love poem about will be there, you know what I mean? There’s that fear of vulnerability in front of people. That’s what I’ve experienced personally, so I can’t say it’s everybody, but just within the girls that I participated with Voces in, with the women that I’ve become friends with in Poetry Slam, we all need that encouragement to do it.
We can say, Oh, I don’t feel good, or… For me, because I have always struggled with my weight and just being self conscious, there’s times I don’t want to go read because I feel like I don’t look good. Or, I don’t feel comfortable in my skin today and being able to sit down with a Jessica Lopez or you or anybody in that time where you’re like, ‘this is what I’m going through and this is why I don’t really want to say what’s on my mind today because I don’t feel good. And just that encouragement of “it’s important, you have to be there. You know, get over it, it’ll be a positive space for you. I think that’s the first step to supporting women in slam or women in poetry, just encourage them to get there, to go there, to do their thing and to not be afraid.
Especially because my mom has always been such a big fan, my biggest fan and when I first started reading, she’d take me to the poetry readings and slams and when I wanted to start talking about more personal things, that definitely affected her. Or if I wanted to reveal something about our relationship, it was always hard for me to do in that space.
It’s those initial fears I think we have to support ourselves through to get on stage and express ourselves. With Firestorm we saw there was a space for that and encouraging women to get into slam. That was a big conversation we had for like three years.
Liza: Can you say something about Firestorm.
Jazz: Firestorm was the all women poetry slam here so you could get points to go to WOW (Women of the World Poetry Slam). We created it so it would be very female positive, female only space where we could really support people and encourage people. And you know what? I can’t even remember when the last Firestorm was. It had to have been like two years ago or something like that, but before that there used to be a woman poet who lived here, (Maresa Thompson), she and Kenn Rodriguez put Firestorm in place. I believe it was an open-mic at that time and slam for women. It kind of disappeared for a while and then had this rebirth when Tracey Pontani came into town and was able to really give her time to coordinate that and bring us all together and really create a space for us to do that.
And I remember the issue being… that was when we were holding all of our slam council meetings and they would last hours and nothing would happen (laughs).
Liza: True (laughs).
Jazz: It was funny because of course, the Council was co-ed and the issue from the guys perspective was that it wasn’t fair we had this extra space to gather these points (points accumulated at the time for each person to be able to qualify for the final performance that would determine whether they were on the city team that would go to the National Competition held each year in August) and at that point it wasn’t even for WOW, (Women of the World Poetry Slam), it was to have more female representation throughout.
It became such a long drawn out process and that’s where I feel like- that question of women in slam, “How do we support each other?” is important.
How do we create this space for us as well? Has been a question forever, since I started in slam and so it’s always in my head and I never know how to address it.
With Firestorm, it really felt like guys against girls in that moment. “Well, why do you deserve it? We can just create a bunch of different slams, for black people, and Mexicans and everything like that and give everybody points.” And I think it totally missed the point almost, you know, and was a much larger conversation that we could have had.
Liza: Why do you think women needed a separate space and to get points from it?
Jazz: Well One, I think it was important for us because we wanted it. We all felt there was a need and when it was brought up, it was a great idea and obviously it kind of shone a light on that gap and brought it to consciousness: “Hey yeah, the last few final slams there haven’t been these women getting on stage, it’s been heavily male-dominated.” And how do we change that?
Especially because we were on a point system- you can sort of look through it and see. It was like: “Look at these women who were performing and they only get to a certain point and there’s maybe one or two on final stage.” It’s like, how do you make that more equitable? And I think that was the question- how do we get more balance? Not to say, Oh we need more women because the power that the guys are showing through their performances or on stage is just blowing us out of the water. That wasn’t the case. I think something came up of ‘Oh maybe you’re not that strong of a slammer, right? And that’s why you’re not advancing through. And it’s like, “no, I’m pretty badass.” Right. (laughs) There’s something systematic there.
And it’s like I only know it through systems, because of the work I’ve been doing with non-profits- the systems that are created to facilitate whatever. And from the women are saying that too. There was something there that I think was real and when Firestorm came up, I saw all the women gravitate toward it and say, “this is something we needed. Maybe we didn’t know we needed it before, but here’s something that’s really cool and it is just us.”
I think there’s something powerful in women gathering together and sharing their stories and because it’s such a diverse pool of women as well. At that time, we needed that. There was something there that we saw that the guys couldn’t see at that time and of course, they’re good right and it was a great conversation to have, but it was so emotional and so kind of big when we had those meetings. I think that’s why we needed it because there wasn’t a lot of representation of women on the stage and we wanted to create that equity by doing that.
Liza: What do you think women’s place is in poetry in general? Not just in slam.
Jazz: It’s funny because before I really got active in poetry, I automatically thought of it as a woman thing, as sort of sensitive and flowery and about love and then when you go through and read, you realize it’s really male dominated too. That’s so weird. It confused me for a while. Because in school, you get this, “poetry’s for girls.”
You can search out your women poets and be intentional, but if you’re going through a library, you encounter a lot of males first and so you don’t know the richness, that robustness of women being in poetry because you’re flooded with all the male poets first. Women’s place in poetry in general is important and powerful and it’s underrated.
You get the jokes, it’s all about her vagina or all about childbirth, or it’s all about this or that and yeah, those are woman things. Of course. What else do you want us to write about? (laughing) I don’t know what you want. I have a sense of humor about it.
It’s so much bigger than poetry. It’s so much bigger than slam, being able as women, to claim our spaces where we’re going to express ourselves and do it authentically and real, how we see it.
I think the role of women in poetry is to be there and not necessarily be looked at as women poets but just as poets as anybody else. And it’s funny too because I don’t have a lot of that academic background of understanding poetry. It’s just what I’ve seen and encountered and experienced.
I’m reading this cool book right now called “The Goddess Versus The Alphabet” and it’s all about how once the written form had come into cultures, the perspective or perception of women being these goddesses- people who are in touch with the earth, who are intuitive, these strong figures in the culture, the prominence of women looked at like deities and as powerful, went down. People started associating life with a man. It’s a really cool book, I’ll show it to you. But it made me start thinking about how through our society we aren’t valued as women. The role of women in poetry it’s almost kind of a reclaiming of that power, that we are valuable, that we do have something to say.
The role of women in slam is to reclaim that space and to show that they are valuable. And I mean that to say- when I said what got me into slam was that showing off aspect, to be able to go up there and to say, this is what I think, this is how I feel and there’s no apologies for that. You can score and do whatever you’re going to do, but I’m going to come up here and say my piece. And I think it’s a powerful tool, slam and poetry, they’re tools to communicate something to the world and create a dialogue about whatever, whatever the content is- your poetry or your performance. It’s to say okay I’m here, this is what I’m going to do, and I’m going to use this tool as a vehicle to push your ideas and my ideas about what being a woman should be.
Usually for slams, I get dressed up. I like to feel good. Put on some heels. You want to feel powerful when you’re up there. And knowing, I do tend to be self conscious sometimes or think about my weight or whatever because you have a thousand people looking at you- (laughs), well maybe not a thousand, but you’re there in front of someone and you’re going to tell them what’s on your mind. That’s like the most terrifying thing for a lot of people. And you know that by the way you dress, by the way you walk up on stage, people are already making judgements because we’re humans and that’s what we do.
To take that space and that experience and totally flip it on their head and surprise somebody with something you’re going to say or do or make reference to- that’s powerful. And using that as a vehicle to be like, Hey, I can play with this, you know what I mean? So people have this idea about a woman, well these are my ideas about being a woman and let’s see where they disconnect or where they line up- that’s fun. Right? To play with that and take people on a trip.
Please tune in tomorrow for one of Jazz’s poems and Part 2 of the interview! See you tomorrow! Happy weekend!