A young woman with wild hair and square-framed glasses stands poised in silhouette against a muted white wall on the edge of a low-lipped stage. She pushes her hair back from her face with both hands and begins to speak into a microphone. This woman is Lydia Armstrong, one of the chief coordinators of the mainstay poetry performance organization Slam Richmond. Every Saturday night for the past nine years, diverse crowds have gathered inside a converted garage called The Shop (an annex to ArtWorks and Plant Zero) to watch seasoned poets, teenage wordsmiths, and first-time performers alike spit out their inner truths on stage.
Before becoming involved with Slam Richmond just over two years ago, Lydia didn’t think of herself as a poet. She first stumbled upon their weekly open mic while working on a novel. “I went to slam Richmond to check it out as an audience member,” she told me over the phone after escaping rush-hour traffic. “I wasn’t really looking to participate.” Lydia thought that attending a local writers meetup group might give her inspiration for her own projects, “but I was blow away,” she recalled. “I just loved it, and I came back for the next four Saturdays in a row.” That fourth Saturday, Lydia performed an original poem herself, something she had never done before. “I was terrified,” she confessed, but the supportive environment she found quickly quelled her anxiety. “Every time you get on that stage at the open mic, even if you’re brand new and you have no idea what you’re doing, even if your poetry isn’t that good, the vibe in the room is so authentically supportive.”
Lydia continued coming back to Slam Richmond every single week. A few months later, she began taking on administrative tasks like managing social media and hosting shows. Eventually she joined the core group of volunteers in charge of coordinating operations, which include scheduling weekly writing workshops and open mics, as well as performance poetry competitions (AKA “slams”) every few weeks, booking featured poets each month, and conducting youth outreach with schools and libraries in Richmond and the surrounding counties.
Cultivating teenage poets is currently an important focus for the organization. Live poetry reading can be particularly intimidating, so they want to let students in the city know they have a space to express themselves in a supportive environment. For those who grow beyond the weekly open mic, there is also the youth slam team, a group which competes in local and national performance poetry festivals.
Lydia and her fellow organizers also offer custom poetry classes to area high schools, most recently organizing workshops and slams for teenagers at Goochland High School, Charles City High School, and Henrico High School. Lydia believes in the power that poetry has to give teenagers a tool for handling difficult emotions. “We want to show teens: here’s something you can do to express yourself,” she explained, “Here’s something you can do as an outlet to talk about things that maybe you can’t talk about in other aspects of your life.”
The organizers of Slam Richmond all have day jobs, so the orchestration of all these programs happens in their spare time. Even more impressive is the fact that in the two years that Lydia has been involved in Slam Richmond, the weekly Saturday open mic has only been canceled once due to a very bad snow storm. “We have actually opened the doors in the middle of a blizzard before,” she noted. “When the lights go out, we still open the doors.”
That dedication to community is part of what sets Slam Richmond apart from other open mics and poetry organizations: the steadfast commitment to maintaining a space for free expression, week after week, all on a volunteer basis. “A lot of people use spoken word as a form of therapy. They’re able to talk about difficult things,” Lydia explained. “People talk about abuse, rape, mental illness, suicide, racism, even sometimes just really bad heartbreak that maybe your friends are tired of hearing about, but you just need to get off your chest because it’s eating you up.” Continuing, she said, “You see it week after week after week, the same people coming back, the same people using this as an outlet to work through their stuff. You see what a tremendous impact a community like that can have on somebody who really needs a place to go to feel welcome and to feel like they have a voice.”
Slam Richmond hosts a poetry open mic at 8:30 PM on Saturdays at The Shop (located at the intersection of 4th and Hull). Admission is free. For more information, visit slamrichmond.com.
Photography by Nicki Stein