“That vibration/Was just a sound of Masturbation”

Women Slam the Competition at Poetry Jams

By Amanda Morris

“Would you rather stay, lady, stay with your man…

or would you rather go out and slam?”

Barbora Rihak performing a piece at Cafe V lese in Prague.

Barbora Rihak performing a piece at Cafe V lese in Prague. Photo courtesy Facebook.

 

Barbora Rihak stands in the spotlight, hunching her reed-like 6’1” frame over the microphone, pouring out her thoughts. She speaks powerfully and uses hand gestures to emphasize her thoughts, slamming her hands against her heart. As she steps back from the microphone at the end of her poem, the crowd explodes in applause. Judges interspersed throughout the predominantly female crowd hold up their scores on simple sheets of white paper and give her the highest two scores possible: nines and tens.

Rihak is unique within the Czech slam world for two reasons: She is slamming in English, and her poems are feminist. She has been slamming since 2011 and recently won her first competition at a so-called “Femi-slam” in Olomouc on International Women’s Day in March.

The femi-slam, held at the theater Divadlo Hudby, was the first of its kind in the Czech Republic, where the number of male slam poetry performers far outnumbered females. The ten females that took the stage that night represented roughly one third of the population of female slam poets in the country. Their poems focused on themes that ranged from romantic relationships to motherhood, but underlying it all: feminism, a topic that is still widely stigmatized by many Czechs.

The rise of the female slammers represents not only small inroads by feminism, but also the growing comfort with English as a means for artistic expression.

While most of the women slammed predominately in Czech, many began their poetry roots with English.Their journey started over ten years ago when Bob Hysek, an English professor at Palacky University in Olomouc, decided to start teaching an English slam poetry class.

Hysek teaches slam in English is because he feels that there is something valuable to be learned from slamming in other languages. “The presence of different national styles and contents performed raises the standard of poetry and offers the chance for comparison,” he said.

“I think in English you can say important things more easily than in the Czech language because in Czech you require a lot of words to get your point across”

Hysek, from Orlova, a town roughly 240 miles east of Prague, has since grown more involved in the slam world, and through organizing events, has contributed to the activity’s recent popularity spurt.

“The new wave of interesting performers, both male and female, may be due to the fact that we started running poetry slams in almost all the regions of the Czech Republic: not just in the biggest cities, over the last two years,” he said.

At the femislam competition, the audience laughed when Rihak stopped slamming her hands against her heart and instead pretended to jerk herself off. As she preformed, she recited with a coy smile,

“And so you slammed your fist against your heart once more. And what you found was far from sore, like an open door, which you slammed just a moment before with all your might you now grab your fright and jizz in your pants like a school girl you tremble in your knees except instead of butterflies it feels just like bees, bzzzzzz! “

Rihak also doubles as a fashion model, yet often criticizes society’s standards of beauty. She has a degree in gender studies and social anthropology from Masaryk University and uses the knowledge from her studies in her poems.

“When you study gender studies and you’re a model, it clashes, and I guess this is the result,” she said. “My inner beliefs don’t reflect a career in modeling and slam is how I cope with what I learned. I want to show women’s beauty in a powerful way, beyond the surface level.”

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Slam competition in the Czech Republic.

According to Rihak, the best way for her to do this is through English.

“I think in English you can say important things more easily than in the Czech language because in Czech you require a lot of words to get your point across,” she said.

Slam poetry arrived in the Czech Republic late– nearly two decades after its conception in America.

Anaya Von Ieh, one of the female poets at femi-slam, originally from Pilsen, said that before recently, most people didn’t know about slam poetry. She started slamming in 2006, and recalls, “When they first started SLAM poetry competitions in Olomouc, nobody really came,” she said.

The stigma around the label of feminist comes as a leftover from the Czech Republic’s communist past.

However, with each new event and promotion, awareness about slam poetry grew. “Thanks to social media and YouTube, the best of Czech slammers became quite popular,” Hysek said.

“They think that women want to take rights away from men, but it’s not like that. It’s about being equal.”

Slam poetry works differently in the Czech Republic. It tends to be more comedic and improvised than the serious slam poetry counterparts in countries like America.

“It’s been like a boom,” Von Ieh added. “It used to be a once a year regional competition in Autumn and a final in December. Now there’s like one every week.”

Back at Divadlo hudby, performer Dobrota Bachrata cocks her head to the side and effortlessly switches from Slovak to English to ask the audience,

“do you care to take care of a caretaker?

hey, moneymaker, you’re not alone,

you’re just having some idiotic dream.”

Bachrata, a student originally from Zilina, Slovakia, slams in both Slovak and English. Standing with her bright-robin’s egg blue hair in ponytails in polka-dotted pants, reading from a bright blue book, she looks purposefully childish.

She said that the slammers’ costumes are a sly jibe at the objectification of female performers.

“We also have to fulfill stereotypical roles – the rude bitch, the bimbo, the mommy, the fairy, the shy one.  We get scanned from head to toe, even by fellow females in the audience (as well as in the real world). And it feels horrible,” she explained.

Femi-slam might signify a rising interest in women’s voices, but many rights groups have said that there is a long way to go before gender equality reaches full acceptance in the Czech Republic.

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Some of the poetry performers.

“I think it’s spreading, but it’s not that popular here because so many people don’t know what it really is,” said Rihak, who proudly considers herself a feminist. “They think it’s about killing men, castrating men, or having hairy legs and pits. They think that women want to take rights away from men, but it’s not like that. It’s about being equal.

The stigma around the label of feminist comes as a leftover from the Czech Republic’s communist past. Under the totalitarian regime, women were supposedly liberated by communists to work and have jobs independent from a husband, but were often expected to do all the household chores, resulting in a “double burden,” for women who had to work twice as much. While they had rights such as abortion, voting, and divorce rights, they were still stuck in prescribed gender roles, experts say. Many critics say that this is largely true still today.

“Women in the Czech Republic still benefit from some communist-built policies, such as state-guaranteed maternity leave and subsidized child care,” said Vanda Thorne, a sociology professor at New York University that specializes in teaching about gender in post-communist societies. “On the other hand, women continue to be severely discriminated, especially at work, where they are paid less, given fewer promotions than men in equivalent situations, and are exposed to sexual harassment. Few women dare to complain publicly for fear of being ridiculed.”

Adela Hrdlickova performing. Photo courtesy Facebook.

Adela Hrdlickova performing. Photo courtesy Facebook.

Adela Hrdlickova, a philosophy major at Charles University and slam poet from Prague, said that her grandmother expects her to get married once she finishes her studies. “My grandma always says to me, ‘You can’t be more than your husband because they don’t like it. You have to be submissive, so you have to do everything that is best for your husband.’”

Hrdlickova does not want to fill this role however, which is why she considers herself a feminist. Concerning gender equality in the Czech Republic, Hrdlickova said, “something’s still frozen. I think — especially in the Czech Republic — after communism we are 20 years in the past.”

Her clothing may be bright and colorful, but her words are much darkerbarbora rihak poem

Not all the women at the Femi-slam considered themselves feminists. “I think men and women should be on the same level but I’m not a feminist,” said Anna Polvona, a performer from Susice who started slamming last summer. “I don’t argue with men and I’m not against men. Some feminists are too radical, so it has changed and men are victimized.”

However, Polvona appreciated the chance to perform without male presence. She said, “It was a great atmosphere because it was a chance for every women to show herself because she doesn’t have the chance to when there are so many men in other poetry slams.”

Some who attended were surprised by the quality and depth of the poems, as well as the success of the event. “I was a little bit skeptical because nobody organized an event like Femislam before,” said Pavel Oskrkany, editor-in-chief of Slamoviny, a specialized Czech poetry slam magazine. “Most surprising was the extraordinary quality of all the performers and the discovery that purely women’s slam can also function in the Czech Republic.”

Event spectators noted that female poetry tends to be a lot more deep and complex, as opposed to male slam poets, who perform in the popular comedic style.

“Czechs are big jokesters. They are willing to make fun of anything (as well as themselves) to make their audience laugh,” said Bachrata. “The majority of the audience wants to laugh and not be reminded of how screwed up they are, that’s why even great poems get low scores. Now, after the femi*slam, I’m convinced that there are as many females that want to express themselves poetically, as there are men who already do so.”

When Von Ieh steps up to the microphone to express herself, her clothing may be bright and colorful, but her words are much darker. She recites,

“Cyanide maybe

will be given

to you

-drop by drop –

making a service

to humankind

setting it free

from your presence

in this world

and at the same time

making a service

to me

so that I won´t

have to be

meeting you anymore,

but I know I want too much. “

Amanda Morris is in College of Arts and Sciences and Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development Class of 2018. Her hometown is Farmington, Connecticut.

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Categories: Culture, Europe, Spring 2016 Issue Number 2

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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