Landon Ayres watches his undergraduate students reveal themselves in some of the most powerful ways.
I had the honor last week of watching some undergraduate students of mine come into their own, including a number of young men, who, in front of packed rooms of strangers, told their stories of recovery and healing following unwanted or abusive sexual experiences as children.
The men were at the University of Florida participating in the 2016 American Forensic Association National Individual Events Tournament, AFA-NIET, which provides students the opportunity to present literature and speeches of advocacy to scholars from across the country.
While advocates for recovery are not uncommon at this event, the number of men who openly sought progress for their silenced brothers struck me this year. One young man discussed his feelings of inadequacy in raising the issue on their college campuses; another described his decision to begin loving himself after years of shame; and another discussed the long term effects that holding in the story of an experience can have.
Several students used poetry, specifically, to explore the complex, nuanced healing process that men distinctly face. While I love to sketch poems in my free time, I don’t read a lot of poetry, and most of the exposure I have comes from the slam poems littering my Facebook newsfeed. I was not prepared for what these students can do.
These performers wove multiple poets’ voices together, used differing points of view from those who had and hadn’t undergone unwanted sexual experiences to show both how men feel, and how crucial our responses to those feelings are.
A young man with a wide smile and bright eyes used poetry to explore the dark feelings he was never allowed to express in normal social settings. He transformed into a dark, monster-like character, and described how the world has taught him that that is how he should feel, and what dissonance he felt with that. I walked away, further impassioned to teach men that nothing about them is inherently evil, violent, or predatory.
By the time I had seen five or six presentations, I had forgotten I was listening to poetry. The frank voices, passionate delivery, and vulnerable honesty made me gasp, cheer, and cry—and I hold on to every minute of it. Our voices become poetry when given the delivery they deserve. The meter, rhythm, spectacle, and imagery all give way to the impact, the inspiration of feeling or sensation within the audience.
Not everyone has the power of volume, the wisdom of words, or even the physical capacity to speak them—and we have to be willing to listen, to hear these living poems in the first place. I only ask that we keep our eyes and ears open, so that the voices of this quieted body are heard, so throats can begin to clear, and breath can fill the lungs of these men again.
Landry Ayres is a blogger and intern for 1in6. Raised in north Texas, he is currently a graduate student at George Mason University working toward his M.A. in Health Communication. His research focuses on resources for men who have unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood, the HIV/AIDS rhetoric of evangelical organizations, performance, and public speaking education. He is also a coach of the George Mason Forensics Team, and a public speaking instructor at a variety of institutes across the nation.