Mayda del Valle ’00 finds creative outlet with slam poetry

The “Olympics of the Spoken Word” – or what some call “Slam Poetry” – got a little shaken up in August 2001. Mayda del Valle ’00 became the youngest and first Latina to claim the National Poetry Slam’s highest individual honor. In less than three years since graduation, del Valle had gone from office temp to nationally recognized poet and Broadway performer.

Del Valle first began to cultivate her creativity in her South Side Chicago neighborhood. The working-class neighborhood was a bouillabaisse of cultures and ethnicities, with African-American, Arab-American, Mexican, Polish and, like her own family, Puerto Rican residents calling it home.

In Chicago, she became part of the underground collective of rappers, musicians, graffiti artists and actors. “I always loved to perform. I always loved to write,” del Valle recalls. She hoped to pursue both her passions in college.

In 1996, del Valle enrolled in Williams with a major in studio art. Despite having grown up in a multicultural environment, del Valle found the new culture she encountered at Williams to be a “shock.” Coming from a low-income family, she found she could not participate in discussions about family vacations in Europe or don the same clothing brands as other students. The environment made for a “rough cultural transition.”

Though she eventually found a niche, for most of her time at college, del Valle found it “very hard to be a creative person at Williams.” The arts, she contends, are looked down upon as a non-academic field. Finally, just before her last semester at Williams, she reached a “crossroads.”

“I couldn’t find anything [to study] that was really relevant [to me]. I was having a hard time applying my education to my life,” she said. Four months before graduation, del Valle was prepared to leave Williams.

As she wrestled with her decision, she attended an evening of poetry and dance at Mass MoCA. The presentation inspired her to design an independent study project that drew together her interest in writing and performance.Her final project was an hour-long show that included original poetry, video, costumes, sets and dance. The one-woman show crossed departmental lines, involving aspects of dance, theater, English and art. The goal of the performance was to “bridge the wide cultural gap” between her own background and the “East Coast mentality” she found at Williams.

The performance was an unqualified success with an over-capacity crowd.

A few months after graduation, del Valle moved to New York City “on a whim.” However, her artistic work couldn’t support her, so she did temporary work around the city and her writing “turned into a hobby out of necessity.”

After living in New York City for a year and a half, she visited the renowned slam poetry club, the Nuyorican. The evening featured a series of poets who performed their work. Instead of merely reciting the words, they performed as if they were firing the troops up for battle, cutting their enemy with a bitter tirade or howling a eulogy.

Del Valle remembers thinking, “So this is what I’ve been doing!”

She began to slam at the Nuyorican shortly after. Del Valle won four out of five of the competitive slams and after only nine months of slamming at the Nuyorican, was chosen as winner of the Grand Slam. The recognition and acclaim allowed her to qualify for the 2001 Nuyorican National Slam Team, set to compete at the National Poetry Slam in Seattle.

At Nationals, del Valle won the individual competition, placing first out of 250 other poets. She also had the honor of being the youngest and the first Latina poet to win the National competition.

Following this achievement, del Valle was asked to tape an episode for Def Poetry Jam, a series that aired recently on HBO. She was also booked to perform at colleges around the country. Finally, her creative work began to pay the bills.

Before long, the series was turned into a Broadway production and del Valle was immediately cast. Currently, the show includes nine poets and a DJ.

Del Valle hopes to continue to work more in film and television, and is pursuing acting as well as writing.

However, she has no definitive goal. Her only aspiration, she says, is to “tell my own story as a Latina, and represent myself and the community.”

“Everyone has a different story,” she said, “but there is something in each story that is universally human.”