Catie Osborn talks with her hands.
She punctuates the space above her head with her fingers, frequently using air-quotes, grasping at invisible objects and emphatically slapping her palms together to illustrate her points.
Her excitable nature translates into her writing, and the combination of her poetry and penchant for using her body to convey her message is garnering a lot of attention.
The 23-year-old St. Ambrose senior and Silvis native won a scholarship from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and will be performing her slam poem “Green, Green Hope” on Monday at the center.
Slam poetry is a performance art based around the recitation of a poem. Osborn said it’s difficult to describe.
“It’s like poetry and theater got together and had a baby,” she said. “It started out of this like, hip-hop kind of quasi-rap thing, and it was like beat poetry. At the same time, I think there’s much more of a performance.”
She describes going to a poetry slam, where poetry performers compete live, as being the best way to differentiate slam poetry from other, more sedate, versions of poetry recitation.
“When you go to a poetry slam, people are clapping and whistling and yelling, and so I think the difference between a poetry reading and a poetry slam is that your goal is to hook the audience and to get the audience behind the message that you are trying to convey.”
Osborn was much more interested in theater than poetry when she began her college career at St. Ambrose University.
“I knew her as somebody who acted and was a wonderful costume designer and had written a play or two,” said Corey Johnson, chair of the theater department. “I really think her forte is with words on the page.”
Johnson wasn’t familiar with Osborn’s work as poet because, Osborn said, she hated poetry until she studied overseas for a year at Edge Hill University in England.
“I really took the poetry class because I had a crush on a boy who was in the class with me,” Osborn said. “My teacher was like, ‘Are you even trying?’”
Osborn said she complained to the professor that poetry was “flowery and boring.”
The professor, Danieli Pantano, a senior lecturer in creative writing, didn’t let Osborn’s bias deter him. He told Osborn to go online and look up slam poetry.
Osborn went to YouTube and found Eric Darby’s “Scratch and Dent Dreams,” a performance she said changed her world.
“Oh,” she said of her reaction the first time she saw the poem. “It wasn’t even like an ‘Oh, I could do that.’ It was just like an ‘oh.’ So then I went and I wrote my first slam poem and showed it to Danieli and he was just like, ‘Meh,’ but I took it to a slam in Liverpool and wound up winning the slam.”
Danieli said Osborn was eager to learn about language and discover contemporary poetry, and although he isn’t enamored with the competitive nature of slam poetry, he appreciated her style.
“She read a few poems in class. They were very powerful, both in terms of subject matter and delivery,” he said. “It’s a style that doesn’t put any obstacles between her text and her reader/listener; in other words, she has a wonderful ear for language and a sophisticated sense of balance that make her ‘performances’ feel very authentic.”
Johnson sees an earnestness in the performances and was taken aback by its intensity the first time she saw Osborn slam.
“Her poetry work got on my radar kind of late in the game,” Johnson said. “She was talking about going to a poetry slam. She said, ‘Want to hear my poem,’ and I said, ‘Well, sure.’ It was about the fact that she’s adopted. So my friend came into my office, and the two of us sat here about 8-10 minutes while she did a poem that brought us both to tears. It was so powerful and gut-wrenching, and as soon as she was done, in a kind of self-deprecating way, she said, ‘I hope you don’t hate it.’”
The poem that Osborn is performing at the Kennedy Center is part of a program that commemorates the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and was chosen because of its reflection of his ideals.
Greg Henry, artistic director of the Kennedy Center American college theater festival, said the scholarship is one of four that were awarded from a pool of 42 people who applied. The scholarship is a one-time award and was established specifically for the anniversary celebration.
Osborn said she wrote the poem before she found out about the contest, but the message of hope was aligned with what she understood about Kennedy’s legacy.
“I heard about this contest. So I went back, and there’s a line ‘Go on let us take that first step,’ that’s a line that JFK used in his speech, and I loved it,” she said. “That’s the whole message of the poem.”
Osborn is worried that she won’t wear the right thing to the recitation and whether she should wear a dress. She’s never slammed in one before. She is worried that her message won’t be appreciated and said it is a different message from the one she has heard in most slam poetry.
“I watch a lot of slam poetry online. There’s a tendency that I’ve noticed — and I have to asterisk this with this is a generalization — but, there’s a tendency to make slam poems very angry and very political. And while I think that it’s an excellent medium to do that and it’s a very creative outlet for some people, I feel like the world is so awful anyway,” she said. “I feel like you have this gift of words and life and you know, creative juices, and I feel like that’s a better gift. Give them hope and give them a funny story. You know, make the world better.”