Tall, pale, with a constant air of casualness, senior Billy Butler is a slam poet. Butler has shared his original poems with the community on many occasions; he has been cheered on by the student body at rallies, performed at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre competed in local poetry competitions, and even composed personalized works for friends over Facebook.
But, on the weekend of May 3rd, Butler, a member of the Tam News staff, laid down his rhymes before an audience far from home. He had been selected as one of only five poets to present his work at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The first night he was in D.C., Butler performed on a small stage for roughly 400 people. “I was a little nervous the first night before I went on stage,” said Butler. “But when I did, it was great. I didn’t mess up, which was awesome.” He presented his poem on that night, and on the next two nights he performed on the Kennedy Center main stage theatre, which held 3,000 people.
On the night of the second concert, after the show, Butler and other youth performers were directed into a small room. “We had no idea what was going on,” Butler recalled, “until this assistant said the First Lady was in the audience and that she’d really wanted to meet all of us.”
Michelle Obama came in and hugged them all, saying that she loved their performances. “The thing that stood out the most to me is that Michelle Obama saw me perform my poem, live, which is something that I would’ve never imagined happening when I first started writing a year ago,” Butler said.
The first lady wasn’t the only person of note Butler met on his foray into D.C. He and the other youths were part of a larger show headlined by R&B musician John Legend. “I met [Legend], and he’s a super cool guy – he was doing sort of a light piano accompaniment to my piece. It was cool,“ Butler said.
Butler was able to perform in D.C. and subsequently meet these famous people through the so-called “What’s Going On NOW” campaign, which aimed to revive and explore themes of Gaye’s album “What’s Going On” that were still applicable to today’s youth. Butler chose to write a poem about the environment.
“I chose the theme of the environment because I sort of had an environmental poem going, and so I decided to make that my submission,” Butler said. “The poem is all about me growing up in Mill Valley and Marin, being in this place of natural beauty; basically how I want to keep it around for future generations and how much I appreciate it.”
But Butler’s poem also hoped to point out a moral lesson. “I tried to say that, ‘here’s this great place we should keep,’ and we shouldn’t be stupid about it, and just make sure it’s be around for a long time,” he said.
Butler started writing slam poetry almost exactly a year before his trip. “I started performing and writing because I heard about the District Slam and, at that point, I had always enjoyed writing and reading and stuff. One day I just wrote a poem and I really liked it and I wanted to share it.”
When he heard about the “What’s Going On NOW” campaign and discovered that it was looking for young artists, Butler decided to submit a video of his poetry. In about a week, he finished a piece on the environment, edited it and then, with the help of senior Kit Larson, filmed a video of himself (seen above) and sent it in. “After a few weeks [the contest runners] contacted me and said they wanted to fly me out to D.C.,” he said.
The video he submitted has circulated around the Tam community. “I don’t know how many people have seen it, but a bunch of teachers have showed it to their classes,” Butler said. “My poetry teacher Ms. Kurita-Ditz sent it around to teachers and the teachers liked it. I think Mr. Erlin posted it on his Facebook. I had people coming up to me saying that they really liked my video, and that was cool.”
Butler advocated seizing the day. “Potential slam poets, I’d say go for it,” he said. “You’d be surprised by how much support the community gives, and how much love people give just watching you perform.”
He cited this reassuring atmosphere as part of the reason he enjoys performing his poetry. “Every step of the way, I’ve been really shocked by how supportive people have been and how receptive people have been to poetry, and how much they like it, how much they tell people they enjoy what other people are doing. Tam’s just a great community and has been very supportive.”