Throaty voice, Mohawked braids, her right hand conducting an invisible orchestra: Diamante Dorsey has the stage.
The audience claps at every pause and shouts her lines right back. They like their gods on U Street, paired with sex, cozying up in the Langston Hughes room.
“I kind of use that shock thing to my advantage, but it’s also my downfall,” she said after performing at Busboys and Poets on Wednesday.
A high school senior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Dorsey is a contender at Saturday’s D.C. Youth Poetry Slam, part of the Split This Rock Poetry Festival.
The event, presented by the poet Jeffrey McDaniel at Bell Multicultural High School, determines which of D.C.’s young poets will fly to Los Angeles this summer for the national Brave New Voices competition.
At this weekend’s contest, judges score the slam poets on their delivery, which can mean angry rapping or soothing lullabies, as well as the content and writing of the poems.
Dorsey is reciting three poems that she picked for their variety in emotion and delivery. But she maintains that slamming has little to do with organized competition, recalling the poets at last year’s Brave New Voices who purposefully received penalties to throw off the system.
Rebellion seems to translate to bonus points in the slam culture, historically based on political and social commentary and defiance.
“Even if they are troublemakers in school or on streets, within our community they are different, they are respected,” says Meghan Harrigan, a poet who served as a D.C. Youth Poetry Slam coach.
She said disadvantaged youth have a harder time being vulnerable with their poetry, but that the art is transformative. Harrigan finds it much easier to teach students who recognize their creative expression. “There’s a bigger light in them,” she says.
Raised near the Bolling Air Force base to a single mother, Dorsey writes poems that often reflect a harder side: an unpretty train ride or an emotional journey. But they carry little self-pity—especially given her supportive mom, whom she calls her “agent.”
For inspiration, Dorsey often turns to music: Alice in Chains, MF DOOM, and her personal favorite, Leonard Cohen.
“That dude is beast,” Dorsey said Wednesday. “I look in his CD pamphlet for answers like somebody would go to the bible.”
She first found inspiration to write poetry in the late rapper Tupac Shakur. Imagining herself as the best female hip-hop MC, Dorsey started to test her rhymes on her friends at lunch. Now she estimates that 90 percent of her time is spent thinking about, writing, rehearsing, and planning her slams. Instead of studying books, she wrote her own chat book, a self-made collection of poems called Baby With a Shotgun. Instead of applying to colleges, Dorsey networks her way to coffee shops and microphones, supported by local groups Sol y Soul and the Shakti Brigade.
“I don’t want to be a poet who sharpens pencils in the cubicle,” she said.
Photo courtesy of Meghan Harrigan.