Oberlin Blogs

Tough and Tender: An Interview with OSLAM Alumni Deborah Johnson '18 and Annika Hansteen-Izora '17

April 30, 2019

Hanne Williams-Baron ’19

When I first joined OSLAM, Oberlin’s slam poetry team, I had no idea what I was getting into. I definitely didn’t realize the depth of the time commitment (I spend at least 10-12 hours a week in rehearsals, planning time, and meetings), I didn’t realize how far I’d travel (all the way to Austin, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Houston!) and I had no clue how much I’d find out about the exhausting yet critically important tasks that go into healthy leadership and organizational sustainability. Although I have learned a ton about poetry and performance, I’ve learned even more about how to build a strong community, support my friends, and gently navigate the stresses and pressures of slam culture. I’ve led OSLAM for the past two years now, and when I graduate in May, I’ll leave the team for good. It breaks my heart, but I know that it’s time for me to get out of the way and let the next generation decide what OSLAM should feel like and be.

As I prepare for my transition out of OSLAM, I thought it would be sweet to interview two of my best friends and idols, OSLAM’s past presidents Annika Izora ‘17 and Deborah Johnson ‘18. These poets are still super famous on campus, despite having graduated years ago; they’re both known for their sharp writing, commanding stage presence, and the stunning generosity and warmth they bring to every workshop and crowded room. Most importantly, though, they also have impeccable style. There's a reason our team chant is: "Too hot! OSLAM!" 

Annika and Deborah across from each other at a dining table, holding pizza dough in the air and smiling.
Annika (left) and Deborah (right) stretching pizza dough before a team dinner hangout. Solid outfits.
  (Photo Credit: Deborah Johnson)​​​​​​

Annika was president for my first two years of OSLAM, and Deborah led with me in my junior year on the team. I’ve learned so much from them about being grounded in ritual, scamming snacks out of Trader Joe’s, and how to perform with the conviction of a whole century of rage and love. They’re both killing it in their respective careers now, with Deborah living in Boston, MA, and Annika splitting her time between Portland, OR, and Brooklyn, NY. Both Deborah and Annika practice poetry and performance every day, despite not being involved with slam teams anymore. Read on for a window into their experiences on OSLAM!

Deborah Johnson '18 (Boston, MA)

Website: https://www.sassy-samosa.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sassysamosa_arts/

Deborah wearing a green sari, standing tall.
Photo Credit: Deborah Johnson

When did you lead OSLAM? What were your priorities as a leader?

I was a co-president for OSLAM from 2016-2018 (except while I was abroad!). As a leader my priorities revolved around making sure the OSLAM team was a place where all our members supported each other, felt safe growing and challenging each other, and was a place of joy that created honest and beautiful art! My priorities also revolved around bringing POC poets that shared stories and created magic on Oberlin’s campus that made students feel heard and seen and safe. I wanted OSLAM shows to be a place that people could come and celebrate all the beautiful stories we all hold. Overall as a leader I wanted OSLAM to be a family that was open to anyone looking for a home! A place that believed in tenderness and play and art!

What is your favorite memory of being on the team?

My favorite memory of being on the team was our first retreat to Detroit! We had so much beautiful quality bonding time, and I remember all of us falling asleep in different corners of the Airbnb; on couches, on air mattresses, on beds, on beanbags with the twinkly lights overhead and music playing. I remember us cooking breakfast together and Annika always ready to take the BEST photos. We also just loved playing so many games together from Mario Kart to silly poetry games – there was always so much joy and laughter. The memories I made with the team have formed my deepest and closest friendships.

What did you learn from running OSLAM? What was one of the biggest challenges you faced as a leader, and how did you respond to it?

I learned what it means to be part of an intentional community that truly cared about one another and held each other accountable. I learned that making those communities takes hard work, honesty, and a lot of imagination. I learned that no one person can do it on their own, and it’s so important as a leader to empower everyone to have a role in creating space and that when people have room to be creative and take ownership they step up because they care about one another. I learned how to low key get my shit together, how to plan events, how to recognize when I needed help, and how to take care of myself.

One of the biggest challenges I faced as a leader was how my leadership really faltered due to my own mental health. I wasn’t in a good place at all and really had to take the time to process my own trauma, and learn how to heal. I had to learn how to figure out how to take care of myself because of how much I was overextending myself. This was honestly so challenging because ultimately I responded to it by stepping down and I think it was the best decision I ever made because in response everyone on the team stepped up to fill the gaps.

It showed me that even those who lead need to pause and take breaks and be honest when they can’t perform or show up in the ways they used to, and it made me trust the OSLAM community even more because all they did was give me support in that decision!

What do you find important or powerful about performance poetry?

I think performance poetry is about life and living and experiences that often were not/are still not heard. Anyone can perform a poem – you don’t need a publishing company, you don’t need a book, all you need is the bravery to tell your story. Even if you are nervous and shaking and your voice cracks, that is a part of your power in telling YOUR story.

Performance poetry has the ability to literally speak alternate universes into existence. I am also a strong believer in affirmations and for me performance poetry is so deeply connected to that – it has allowed me not only to create my own spaces but it has taught me how to listen with a full and open heart. When you hear a poem you can feel every emotion the writer feels; you feel it in between the words, in between the snaps of fingers, in between the claps. It’s like thunder and fairy dust and revolution all in 3 minutes or less. 

Deborah reading at an open mic in Boston.
Deborah reading at an open mic at the Lucy Parsons Center in Boston, MA. (Photo credit: Deborah Johnson)

What are you up to now? What role does poetry play in your life?

I now am working at The Posse Foundation as a Trainer. I was part of the Posse Program at Oberlin and it feels so great being able to continue supporting students. I work to help recruit students, prepare them for college through workshops around identity and their experiences, and also visit our campuses to support students 1:1! Adjusting to post-grad life has definitely been hard and my advice to every single senior is TAKE IT EASY. You can’t plan everything or anything and nothing turns out how you expect it to! Rest, rest, rest, and rest more.

When you are ready to create, run, write, paint, do whatever extra-curricular you love at Oberlin, you will return to them. I only recently have returned to poetry – I have been doing a few open mics with FEMS Slam here in Boston (which I got involved with because of another OSLAM member! #OSLAMforever #OSLAMrunsdeep). But even when I wasn’t performing, I have really taken this year to read a lot of poetry and fall in love with the art form again. Poetry right now is a place where I am finding myself again.

If you were a chapbook, what would the cover look like?

Oooh. Well I would definitely want to design it myself and I think I would want to make a collage with lots of plants, patterns, brown women, and bright colors. I would want the cover to be bright and something that embodies being South Asian and American.

What’s one poem everyone should read?

“Instead” by Ariana Brown!

Annika Hansteen-Izora ‘18 (Brooklyn, NY, and Portland, OR)

Annika, in a rainbow striped shirt, looking away from the camera.
Photo Credit: Annika Izora

Website:  https://www.annikaizora.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/annika.izora/

When did you lead OSLAM? What were your priorities as a leader?

I led OSLAM in 2015-2016 with Nina Austin and 2016-2017 with Deborah Johnson. My priorities were centering Blackness within the history of poetry slam space, uplifting the work of writers of color - particularly those who were women, Black, and queer, and creating a space where writers of all backgrounds felt they could share their voice, where they felt their stories and experiences were not only valued, but a part of larger movements to get free.

What is your favorite memory of being on the team?

There are too many to count. Next to the Cat in the Cream, OSLAM was my home while I was at Oberlin. When we realized we made it to 2016 semi-finals at CUPSI it was a huge, celebratory moment, not only for us but for the poetry community. It was like, oh shit, this tiny school in the middle of Ohio with no coach really has something to say. Danez Smith’s poetry reading back in 2017 where you could feel the whole room holding their breath while Danez read. Performing the single silliest and funniest poem I have ever written with Misaël Syldor in 2017. Playing 10 questions to fall in love with Hanne Williams-Baron, which resulted in not only tears and love, but one of the most honest poems I’ve ever written about family and healing wounds. Every late-night game with the crew of truth or deep life-changing truth. Every time B.J. Bato Tindal taught the audience how to share energy between the poet and the audience.

Annika reading poems to the room. She is bathed in pink light.
Photo Credit: Annika Izora

What did you learn from running OSLAM? What was one of the biggest challenges you faced as a leader, and how did you respond to it?

One of the biggest challenges I faced as a leader was learning how to push one another as writers. OSLAM is unique in comparison to other college poetry groups, in that we don’t have a coach or a mentor with years of experience under their belt. We were all learning from each other, pushing one another to learn how we can use poetry to tell our truths. I never took a creative writing course at Oberlin, and so I had to learn from my peers what it means to challenge one another in writing, to hold one another accountable not only to my poems, but to my idea of community. That community means holding each other compassionately, through the mess, because you all believe in a larger vision of stories as a method for truth and change.

What do you find important or powerful about performance poetry?

Performance poetry is so powerful to me because of how I am able to stand fully in my truth. It’s the space where I embody that truth. I often tremble when I read because I can literally feel the energy pouring out of me. I feel fearless when I read because I am telling the truth. Poetry allows me to embody my stories in the most freeing way I know how.

What are you up to now? What role does poetry play in your life?

Now I’m still writing, still learning, still writing poems in my journals and Notes app. The difference now is I’m learning what it means to create and share poems beyond the Oberlin bubble. I’m facing my fear, like all creatives, of not being good enough, and putting my work into the world. I live between New York City and Portland, Oregon, and I’m working on releasing a chapbook, and creating spaces for queer, Black poets to share work and engage in creation.

If you were a chapbook, what would the cover look like?

Brown skin, gold jewelry, a mango, and water that looks endless.

What's one poem everyone should read?

Some Girls Survive on Their Sorcery Alone, by Thiahera Nurse.

Thank you Deborah and Annika for taking time out of your full and hectic lives to talk with me and reminisce! You have both brought infinite joy to my life and I wouldn't be the person I am without your love and ruthless care. I LOVE YOU, POETS! OSLAM IS FOREVER!

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