A writer of Asian-American, Pacific-Islander descent, Meta Sarmiento won the Spoken Word for the World competition in 2015 and is a three-time TeamBackPack cypher audition semi-finalist.
A previous speaker at Point of Departure, recently earned a spot on Slam NUBA’s National Poetry Team. A graduate of the University of Guam, Meta often writes about cultural identity, love, loss, and healing.
Here we talk about slam poetry in Guam, the art of performing live, and the power of vulnerability.
So you were born and raised in Guam, a U.S. territory, which means you are a U.S. citizen. That must be a totally different experience than from other citizens.
Extremely different experience. There are a lot of cultural nuances being a Filipino born in a U.S. territory but then when you leave Guam and come to mainland America, you’re almost invisible like, “I don’t know what Guam is,” and so you feel like this weird tension between being an American citizen and not really feeling American. So there’s definitely that.
How old were you when you moved here?
I travel a lot, I think my first trip to the U.S. was in 1998. I was 8 years old, I went to Disneyland. That was awesome! Last summer I moved to Denver, Colorado—I’ve only been here 8 months now!
Did you grow up speaking English as well?
Yes. The primary language of Guam is Chamorro, the indigenous language. But everyone speaks English because we’ve been colonized by Spain, Japan, and lastly America. So now that we’re a U.S. territory, everyone speaks English.
Hold old were you when you first started to realize that you were a poet?
In the sixth grade, my language arts teacher would leave feedback in our journals and one day I opened my journal and she had left a note. It read, “John, you write beautifully. If you continue to write, I believe you’re going to be somebody.” It was the first time somebody really identified any value of that level in me. I think it was in that moment that I was like, “Maybe I could be a good writer someday.” And that’s when I decided that I wanted to do writing as a serious thing. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school when I realized I wanted to be an actual poet.
And did you start doing performance poetry in Guam?
Yes, I did. I was introduced in 2007 and I decided, “You know what? Let me try this out”. So I went to a local poetry slam—and at that time, there were no divisions like there are now, where there’s a youth division and an adult division—it was just a free for all. When I slammed for the first time, I ended up placing third and I beat out a whole bunch of adults. I was like, “Damn! I could be good at this,” and the rest is history.
Did you choose Denver because of its stature in the slam community?
I’ve admired poets in Denver for a really long time, for sure. Especially the poets coming out of Slam Nuba. When I decided to leave Guam, that was definitely a factor: what community am I trying to become a part of. One of the things I noticed about Denver’s writing community is that there aren’t a lot of Asian-Pacific Islanders in their communities. So I thought if I go there, I’m definitely going to stick out—in a good way or maybe in a bad way, I don’t know. It definitely played into my decision to move to Denver.
You teach creative writing. What do you think you can learn about the art of writing from performing slam poetry that you can’t learn in any other way?
The reason why I am an effective creative writing teacher is because I do the things I’m trying to teach. Most textbooks and traditional curriculum that don’t cover what actually happens at a poetry event, how to connect with the audience on a very real and emotional level.
Do you have a certain experience on stage that was especially transcendental?
When I was still really early on in my writing efforts, I did a duet with my homie Carlos Anderson. We wrote a piece for my girlfriend at the time and she was leaving for college. It was the first time I’ve ever cried on stage. Growing up, I always tried not to be vulnerable, I thought vulnerability is weakness. But in that moment, being vulnerable was actually a strength because the connection between me and my girlfriend became stronger. It was an important moment for me as a writer to see that my vulnerability isn’t a weakness.
Do you have a favorite TED performance?
Yeah. It was very recently, too. Lux Narayan did a TED talk called, “What I Learned from 200 Obituaries.” Every day at breakfast, he reads the obituaries in New York Times. He made a compilation of the positive words that people used in obituaries. Two of the words that stuck out to me the most were “John”—because that’s my legal name – and “help”. I‘ve always been obsessed with leaving a positive impact on society. Seeing what people have to say about those who’ve passed away and the impact they had on society really struck me. It’s really dope.