“Welcome to the room, we’re saying ‘fuck’ and being very gay,” said Ebo Barton as people entered Cat Cavern last Friday. The slam poet’s invitation to Willamette was organized by the Willamette Events Board and coordinated by Cynthia Ramirez (‘20), Gillian Pringle (‘20) and Adriana Escorcia (‘22).
Barton is a Black and Filipino trans and non-binary slam poet. Their poetry centers around issues of gender identity, poverty, racism, gentrification and queerness.
Barton uses they/them pronouns, which they explained to the audience as, “You say, ‘Ebo just did the most amazing slam, they are so cool, I wanna give them $20.’”
When on stage, Barton joked with the crowd between poems and asked about upcoming events on campus. They explained that audiences can respond to slam poetry by snapping or making noise, which shows them that they’re doing a good job.
Throughout their performance, they checked in with the audience, at one point leading them in a communal deep breath. Before beginning one poem about their absent father they asked, “Who here has a biological father who is maybe not the best person?” to which many people in the crowd cheered.
Barton wrote their first poem at age six personifying a street sign near where they grew up. After that, they continued to write poetry but did not understand that’s what they were doing until they were an adult.
“For a very long time I thought I invented a type of writing. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is jazz words,’” Barton said in an after-show interview, laughing.
Though Barton primarily works in slam poetry, it isn’t their only writing practice. They also have experience writing plays and describes themself as “a distant theatre nerd.” They believe theatre reaches a broader audience and allows for a story to be told in a different way to a different set of people.
Barton grew up in Los Angeles but currently lives in Seattle, where they have had the opportunity to be in community with many other slam poets they admire, like Buddy Wakefield and Karen Finneyfrock. “I get to be in community with these people, and they don’t know that I’m melting on the inside when I talk to them. I think that that’s why you want to get into the work that you’re doing. You get to be friends with people who are your heroes,” said Barton.
They believe that artists are the real historians and that colonialism and white supremacy are responsible for divorcing the artist from the historian. “I feel like [artists] are the alternative historian. A way of giving people a different view into the mess,” said Barton.
In one poem, they dream of using travel as an escape from the racism they experience in their day-to-day life, while weaving in stories of racism against Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex. The poem ended with the revelation that no one anywhere is free.
In another poem titled “Open for Business” Barton talked about gentrification. “It’s like they are poking holes in our streets to see if we will leak from them,” they said as audience members nodded their heads and snapped in approval.
In the interview after the event, Barton expanded on their poem stating, “Gentrification not only displaces people from their homes and from their locations, it also displaces art.”
When asked about the power of language in the interview, Barton said: “I think language is more complex than we make it. If we’re both speaking English, we don’t necessarily understand each other. We can change the world if we recognize that we’re not all speaking the same language and start to figure out how to do that.”
Barton recounted times when they submitted poems about transness and publishers responded saying their stories are not the kind of trans stories they’re looking for. “We need [trans] voices. I would love for there to be such a variety of trans stories that they can’t pinpoint.” They went on to say that there is not just one trans narrative and every type needs to be seen and accepted.
To trans poets, Barton said: “Trans poets are so necessary. If you set yourself up to do it, don’t not do it because we need your voice.”
Before leaving the stage, Ebo advised everyone to make a mistake in 2020. To aspiring poets they advised that dreams don’t happen overnight.
“You’re not in your final form. Your best poem is not written yet. My best poem is not written yet.”
Barton’s work has been featured in “Black Imagination,” a collection of works curated by Natasha Marin. Barton is also a curator of the Alchemy Poetry Series in Seattle and also offers a series of workshops ranging from the basics of spoken word to, “Deconstructing the Superhero” and “Our Revolution Anthem.”
To find out more about Ebo Barton and their upcoming events, visit their website ebobarton.com or follow @ebobarton on Instagram.