Just months after graduating from Williams, Mayda Del Valle ’00 walked into the renowned Nuyorican Poets CafÃ© in New York, N.Y. equipped with little experience and a handful of poems that she’d penned as part of an independent study during her senior year. A year later, at the age of 22, the Chicago native became the youngest poet and first Latina ever to win the Individual National Poetry Slam. She has since performed for the Obamas in the White House, been featured on the HBO series and Broadway production Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry and made her way onto Oprah’s September 2009 “Power List.” I sat down to talk with Del Valle last Thursday over some chicken wings and buttered squash in Goodrich Hall a half hour before she was to take the capacity crowd on a lyrical journey.
How did you start slamming?
It was really the Nuyorican Poets CafÃ© that did it for me â€“ I’d known about the CafÃ© for some time, and my senior year, I was doing an independent study on poetry and performance, so I tried to go there as often as I could. Back then, there weren’t spoken word outlets at Williams like Speakfree, so going to the Nuyorican, I also had a chance to try it out, perform a little bit myself. So I ended up writing all these pieces senior year for that project, and then when I graduated, I took them to New York and slammed with the pieces I’d composed up in the Berkshires.
Fast-forward just over a year â€“ you win the Grand Championship. How in the world did that happen?
I wasn’t expecting that to happen at all. I went to the Nuyorican because I love to perform and write, and that was somewhere that could serve as an outlet for my feelings and an open stage for my work. It was a huge honor for me to perform at the Nuyorican, with so many famous cats having come through there. So when I moved to New York, I hit the ground running and was slamming almost immediately.
Winning wasn’t even my goal; I just wanted to make it on the team and get to know the whole Nuyorican community. They meant a lot to me. So I just started going and competing and really surprised myself, to be honest. I kept slamming and winning and qualifying and moving forward in the competition until I qualified for the Grand Slam, and it was like “What?” Then I won, and just completely flipped out. Winning meant that I was automatically on the team for the Nuyorican, that I would have a chance to rep them in Seattle that August. We ended up losing by a tenth of a point, but they had me anchoring the team, and I got high enough scores throughout the competition to qualify for the indy slam. When I went on to win that, in front of over a thousand people, I seriously could not believe what had happened.
What piece did you perform for the win?
“Tongue Tactics,” a piece that I wrote in response to an acquaintance’s comment that Puerto Rican Spanish just sounded so uneducated, as opposed to Mexican or pure Castilian Spanish.
What’s your personal favorite poem?
Definitely “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Peitri. He passed away a couple years ago, but he wrote the poem back in the 1970s in the heat of the Nuyorican poetry movement. It’s a really amazing, kind of epic poem about different characters’ appreciation of their Latino identities, and the struggle and suffering that they experience. I just remember seeing him perform that piece and being in awe and reading it later and breaking down into tears. It felt like I was reading my parents’ story in a lot of ways.
You talk a lot about your own Latino identity in your work â€“ how has your heritage found its way into your art?
I mean, it’s probably my main source of material! It’s such a huge part of my life. My cultural identity has always been very central to who I am as a person. My parents were always very careful to instill in me a sense of pride for my past and my heritage, for where we were from. So it plays a big role in my work, even if I’m not writing about it explicitly.
I kind of have to ask this â€“ what’s Obama’s smile like in person?
His smile is electric. It fills up the room, just breathes charisma. He really commands attention.
What was it like performing for him?
It was absolutely insane. I still pinch myself about it and ask, “Did I really do that?” I took my mother with me, and that’s the part that really sticks out. It meant a lot that she could be there and listen to the piece that I performed, because it was about her mother, my grandmother. Meeting the president was definitely unbelievable, but having my mom there was even more awesome. I looked into the audience and saw her intermixed with famous faces, from the president to Joe Biden to Spike Lee. It was so surreal.