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Poetry in DC’s Public Spaces: An AU Student’s Journey

When Davis Shoulders arrived at AU for the master’s in public anthropology program, he was in search of a way to focus his research interests.

“I wanted a place that would guide me directly into communities that I could serve and help. I knew that the city of DC has such a variety of organizations and infrastructure for community support around the world,” Davis said.

He soon decided to turn a critical lens on the the DC community itself, exploring ways that public spaces—particularly those that house poetry readings—generate discourse among diverse groups.

“The conversations in these urban communities change people, and allow for certain performances of identity that are often subdued or hidden by systems of privilege,” Davis said. “In my work, I hope to feature the importance of these often unknown or informal public spaces, which provide a community-centric method of mapping the city.”


Slam Poetry as a Public Forum in the DC Community

When a space puts on a poetry slam, Davis has found, the environment can amplify diverse voices by offering equitable access to a microphone.

“Artists and audiences alike learn from the positive energy of the room, and from people who are willing to be honest on a stage for a few minutes,” Davis said.

In any given month, DC is home to more than 30 open mic and poetry nights, most taking place in the late evening hours. Davis plans to eventually devote one month to attending every performance offered, but for now he tries to attend one per week. He has been most engaged with the Beltway Poetry Slam, which hosts a competition the last Tuesday of the month at the Busboys and Poets in Brookland.

“A lot of my ‘research’ just involves showing up, being present and supportive of poets, and paying my five dollars to attend,” Davis said.

Davis has also interviewed some poets to develop his understanding of how they navigate and support the slam’s “safe spaces,” and his interviews have shaped his understanding of his role as a researcher.

His research is primarily focused on understanding the ways the poets choose to engage with these spaces. His biggest conclusion so far is that poets are incredibly intentional and social-justice oriented in their choices, including in the language they choose to express their ideas.

“It’s more than just entertainment,” Davis said. “Each and every poet lays down their privilege, their vulnerability for a bigger picture, for sharing their art in an impactful way that speaks honestly to themselves, while having the rest of the world in mind. It’s this sensitivity and awareness to current social justice issues, and how they navigate their identity in poetic conversation, that makes their boldly confident and often prophetic poetry so magical and moving.”

He has drawn from skills learned in his Community Documentary class, taught by Nina Shapiro-Perl, to produce digital stories and to consider his own positioning as a researcher. This has shaped his approach working in DC’s poetry community.

“Discovering my role in the community—whether as poet, audience member, or scorekeeper—is critical to validating any research that I eventually produce, so it can be an effective resource for this community,” Davis said.


Davis’s Typical Day on Campus

When he’s not attending poetry slams, Davis is busy with the other demands of the master’s in public anthropology program. He usually devotes his mornings to reading and studying, to clear his afternoons for classes and events on campus, including the Monday Social Justice Colloquium and the Metropolitan Policy Center series.

 It can be pleasantly distracting on campus with all the activist meetings and lectures that I could attend within a day, so I generally try to finish my reading at home before coming in,” Davis said.

Davis enjoys running into students and professors at Hamilton, the Department of Anthropology building, for quick conversations before getting back to work.

“Classes to me are just planned extensions of those incidental conversations I sometimes have in the hallways,” he said. “We all become teachers and students. You hear fellow classmates say things that make you revaluate your thoughts on a topic for the next month.”


Davis’s Journey toward Becoming a Public Anthropologist

Davis doesn’t have an undergraduate background in anthropology, so he searched for a program that would support the initial development of his skills and interests.

“When I read about AU’s program and its social justice mission, I was immediately inspired by a department that would proclaim such a strong stance in affecting the world around them. All the professors seemed to have such a diversity of work in anthropology that I felt that even if I wasn’t one hundred percent certain about my research focus, the faculty could give me a wide range of opportunities to explore.”

Going forward, Davis may pursue a PhD in urban studies, and he intends to continue engaging with urban communities. He names priorities including fighting gentrification and championing local rights to the city through positive public spaces.

“I am mostly committed to living intentionally in urban communities and offering my resources and support, whether that means working for a non-profit, a school, a housing community, or other activist groups,” Davis said.


Davis Shoulders, like many AU public anthropology students, has discovered his research and career interests through collaborating with our faculty and students. If you are interested in finding your own calling, you can learn more about the master’s in public anthropology at American University.

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