Talking with Ebo Barton about representing Seattle, the divide between spoken word and written poetry, and three poets you should know

(Photo of Ebo Barton by Adam Rubinstein of Stopped Down Studio.) Earlier this month, Seattle poet Ebo Barton took fifth place at the Individual World Poetry Slam in Flagstaff Arizona. We talked with them over email about the championship and the state of poetry in Seattle right now.

Could you tell our readers what the process of getting to the Individual World Poetry Slam was like? How did you wind up delivering spoken word to an audience of people in Flagstaf?

The local process is, honestly, the most fun. Seattle Poetry Slam hosts preliminary slams in which Seattle poets compete using poems with a 4-minute, 3-minute, 2-minute and 1-minute time limit (with a 10 second grace period), much like they do at the Individual World Poetry Slam preliminaries. The top 8 poets then go on to final competition and first place gets to represent Seattle. In these slams, I get to compete with my friends and poetry family. It's not as intense as it sounds because really the core of Seattle Poetry Slam has been the community. We love each other, we've been through life together, we talk on a regular basis about experience with oppression, how the system continues to hunt us and we laugh together. I would be just as happy to see any other poet from Seattle Poetry Slam get to the final stage in Flagstaff. The competition aspect has helped me grow as a writer and a tool to grow my art skills, but I don't let the competition own me or my work. I was fortunate enough to win a preliminary slam and then win the finals, which led to being sent to Flagstaff, Arizona as a Seattle Poetry Slam representative.

You've won and been a finalist at many slams for almost the last ten years. What do you think about your work appeals most to judges? What's your greatest strength a performing poet?

I’m a Queer, Person of Color who was born female so I’m not used to espousing my strengths or even hearing about them. I had to ask my mentor about this. She allowed me to realize that my story is the story that doesn’t often get told. My story is often the one that is silenced or erased from history. I’ve taken it upon myself to use the time limits in which I’m given to be on stage to tell the story in my voice. From the poor, Black, Filipino, Queer, Trans, masculine, undereducated, child of an immigrant mother, sexual assault survivor’s voice. People find themselves in those stories. I think my greatest strength, (again, internalized oppression is real and this difficult to question to answer) is staying true to my story and remembering why I wrote it. For all the parts of me I wrote the poem.

Do you think the spoken word community and the poets who tend more toward written poetry could learn something from each other? Do you think Seattle's poetry community is divided?

THANK YOU FOR ASKING THIS! YES! I wish so much that written poets and spoken word poets would connect more. I do have to acknowledge that written and spoken word are often separated by race and class. Spoken word and slam tend to often involve folks that have little access to academic or higher education. You can come in from anywhere and put your name in the bucket and get on the mic. Spoken word is the ways in which most people of color share their histories. I think something that doesn’t often get said is that written word is a tool of White Supremacy. “If it is not written/printed in a particular way, it does not exist” is the lie we are fed, as though we are not able to value the other ways in which stories are told or information is shared. But I do believe that there is something to learn on both ends. We are so similar, though, page poets often think about how the space on the page or between words and thoughts and in spoken word we often think about the space in our rhythms or even the literal space we take up on stage. And also, poetry slam gets looked down upon in a lot of communities and the thing is, at least our competition is upfront. There is a lot of competition in the written word, but it's not as upfront. Yes, I do believe Seattle's poetry community is divided. I think we definitely try to make an effort, but again, our art forms are often separated by race and class and the gaps these things create take a concerted effort to bridge.

Who are three Seattle-area poets who you think are doing amazing work right now?

Imani Sims, whose book (A)live Heart just came out via Sibling Rivalry Press. She is someone whose work I admire and love and speaking of page/stage is one of the rare poets that does both so beautifully. Troy Osaki, who is a phenomenal spoken word artist who is true to his roots in community work and political/cultural resistance. You may have seen his latest video on Bruce Lee's Facebook page or Buzzfeed taking on stereotypes and racism. I definitely strive to have the strength he delivers in his work. Tara Hardy, whose book, My, My, My, My, My is being published via Write Bloody Press. Tara tells her not-often-told story from so many different angles, it’s a lot to take in, but you want to so badly.

What's next for you? Where can our readers find you next?

I want to continue doing youth work as a teaching artist because it makes me the happiest. By day, I’m the Youth Arts Coordinator at Gay City. I am writing a Queer Social Justice Play which debuts at Gay City in May 2017. I'm planning a really interesting project with local comix artist Sarah Rosenblatt about our experiences using her visual art and my poetry. I am going on a West Coast tour in June 2017 and hopefully the Northeast in July 2017. The best place to find me is every Tuesday at Seattle Poetry Slam at Re-Bar (1114 Howell Street, 21+, $5, 7pm).