2015 Shaping the Future

Slam poet Sam Lai brings strength, vulnerability to his work

Resist your “poet voice.”

WU-SLAM veteran and Washington University in St. Louis senior Sam Lai offers that advice to all slam poetry novices. Slam poetry, he says, should be intense, dynamic, maybe even embarrassing.

“The first mistake people make is to read their piece as if they were in the classroom. That’s what we call the poet voice,” Lai said. “A good performance takes a combination of strength and vulnerability. If you feel ridiculous, then you’re probably doing it right.”

Lai, who is studying American culture studies in Arts & Sciences, was introduced to slam poetry at WU-SLAM’s pre-orientation program. He was drawn to the drama of a good performance, the tough questions asked by the best poems and the snaps of appreciation offered for an ugly truth beautifully rendered. Lai also liked the members of WU-SLAM.

“It was a group of people that were seemingly cool but secretly awkward,” Lai said. “I saw people who were motivated and intense and passionate. I could relate.”

Lai has since emerged as slam poetry standout, winning campus competitions and performing at both the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) and National Poetry Slam. At this spring’s CUPSI competition in Richmond, Virginia, Lai performed “Legend of the Dynamite Kid,” a four-minute work that explores the history of Chinese railroad workers, the legacy of American racism and society’s warped perception of physical beauty. That Lai managed to weave three disparate themes into one seamless narrative speaks to his talent. That the poem is ultimately joyful speaks to his heart.

“For years, I have been trying to answer all of these different questions, and this is the best answer I’ve come up with so far,” Lai said. “It is a memorial piece about Chinese railroad workers, but there is this related idea of disposable bodies that is connected to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. And I wanted to write about body image, which is something I often write about. But — and this was really important to me — I didn’t want it to be sad. I wanted it to be about resurrection.

“I feel when I perform this poem, I’ve said my piece,” added Lai. “If, at this point of my life, I were given the chance to have four minutes in front of the country, this is what I would say.”

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