Friday, July 11, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Dominique Christina's "The Period Poem"

Don't mess with poets on Twitter. Activist and performance artist Dominique Christina is the 2012 and 2014 champion of the Women of the World Poetry Slam, and she used a spoken-word poem to slam a tweet full of shaming about menstruation. Here's how the poem begins:
Dude on twitter says, quote, “I was having sex with my girlfriend when she started her period, I dumped that bitch immediately” end quote. Dear nameless dummy on Twitter: The sudden grief all your girls feel after the matriculation from childhood and the induction into a reality that they gonna have to negotiate you and your disdain for what a woman’s body can do, herein begins an anatomy lesson infused with feminine politics...because I hate you. You’re the reason my daughter cried funeral tears when she started her period. 
In her introduction, she says that the poem, written for her 13-year-old daughter, is part of "a necessary conversation that seeks to undermine the shaming that happens to some girls around menstruation." She talks about throwing a "period party" for her daughter--everyone dressed in red. The poem adopts that same celebratory, defiant tone:
So to my daughter: Should any fool mishandle the wild geography that is your body, how it rides a red running current like any good wolf or witch. well then, just bleed, Boo! Give that blood a biblical name, something of stone and mortar. Name it after Eve’s first rebellion in that garden. Name it after the last little girl to have her genitals mutilated in Kinshasa. That was this morning. Give it as many syllables as there are unreported rape cases. Name the blood: Something holy...something mighty...something un-language-able...something in hieroglyphs...something that sounds like the end of the world! Name it for the roar between your legs, and for the women who will not be nameless here.
Christina takes a taboo topic, hauls it out into the open as an example to her daughter (and the rest of us), and makes it normal, named, and noble. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Douse shame with publicity: As social work researcher Brené Brown, another Famous Speech Friday speaker, notes in her TEDxHouston talk about vulnerability, "shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won't be worthy of connection? The things I can tell you about it: it's universal; we all have it.The only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it the more you have it." By speaking loudly and proudly about a supposedly shameful topic, Christina is able to shed the shame, connect with the audience on a universal theme, and render it powerless. It's a great way to use public speaking as a power tool.
  • Energetic delivery is infectious: Far too many speakers aim for boring in their delivery, and achieve it. Here, the conventions of spoken word poetry infuse this work with verve, passion and lilt. It's hard for me to imagine an impassive group of listeners, regardless of what they thought of this poem, which is loaded with a strong point of view and the delivery to match. Listen just to the audio and hear how she uses pauses, emphatic pronunciation, tonality, cadence and more vocal variety to light up the words and the listeners.
  • Give us an imperative: Some of the power of this speech lies in its imperative sentences, the ones that command us to do something (otherwise known as the call to action). It's a form enhanced here by the use of active verbs at the beginning of a series of sentences: "Give it...a name," and "Name it" being the ones most used. It's direct and commanding in every sense of the word, commanding us to act and commanding our attention.
  • Subvert expectations: Christina mixes the quotidien and the elegant, combining "hereins" and "I digress" with street language to create a message that's at once playful and powerful. In a larger sense, she takes an undermining, misogynistic comment and undermines it her way, the best kind of subversion. Don't be afraid to mix it up in your own speeches when you want to keep listeners on their toes. The tactic adds surprise and punch.
You can watch the video below and learn more about this amazing poet and performer on her website and on Twitter. What do you think of this famous speech?

I'll be leading Be The Eloquent Woman, my day-long workshop on women and public speaking, as a pre-conference session at the European Speechwriter Network's autumn speechwriters and business communicators conference in Amsterdam. The workshop is 23 October and the conference is 24 October. You'll learn how to speak with confidence, content and credibility to subvert the common expectations of women speakers. Please join me!