Los Angeles, CA
Mayda Del Valle is a renowned spoken word-artist. In 2001, she became the youngest person and first Latina to win the National Slam Poetry title. She subsequently appeared in four seasons of the HBO series “Def Comedy Jam” and in the Tony-winning production of “Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway,” including its national tour.
In your own words, what do you?
I am a spoken word artist, poet, writer, performer. I hate the other labels. I wouldn’t say I’m a “slam poet” because I don’t compete anymore. I slammed for one year when I got started, then never slammed again.
What does daily life look like for a self-employed writer and performer?
It depends. When I’m performing, I’m on a plane, in a hotel room, dragging my suitcase across an airport, trying to get to colleges, universities, high schools, and businesses. When I do high school performances, I perform some of my poems, then talk about where the stories came from—growing up in Chicago, or being Puerto Rican, or being a person of color at Williams. I get to talk about my life experiences and life as an artist. I try to encourage students to follow their dreams and do what they love.
When I’m not performing, I’m home writing, trying to be disciplined enough to sit down and create new material. Right now, I’m taking a creative nonfiction class at UCLA and trying to pull together a collection of poetry.
So you’re a writer, but it sounds like you’re a teacher, too.
I am. It’s a role I’ve taken on, especially as I’ve been asked to do more work with high school students. Often when I go to a private school and talk to students of color, they say, “It’s great that you’re here, because we don’t often get to see successful Latinas, or successful black men and women.” It’s encouraging to know I’m a positive role model. I know what it was like for me as a young person, to see successful people from a similar cultural background, and say, “Wow.”
You were an art major at Williams. How did you choose that major?
When I got to Williams, the atmosphere was a jolt, coming from the south side of Chicago. It took me a while to find my niche—socially and academically. I took Drawing 100 with Ed Epping, and I just wanted to keep taking more classes. I felt at home in the art department. I hadn’t fit into any other place in that way at Williams. And I felt like I was learning so much. So I decided to be an art major. I thought, “This is insane! I can’t even draw a straight line!” But I did it.
My junior year, I took a video class and that took me back into writing. I discovered that that was my medium. I wasn’t a painter. I wasn’t a sculptor. I didn’t have the patience for photography. I was a writer.
For me, writing is kind of visual. I guess I paint pictures with words, so it actually makes sense.
When were you introduced to the idea of poetry as a performance?
My senior year. I came back after a semester in South Africa. I was going through a rough time and almost left Williams. My friend Will, a dancer, invited me to a show at MASS MoCA—a dance/lecture on black women in the Blues and Everton Sylvester of the Brooklyn Funk Essentials. We went to the show and all of a sudden, I felt the life come back to me. I realized I hadn’t been doing the things that I loved, like writing. Something unlocked. The floodgates opened and I started writing and writing and writing. I thought, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.” I ended up doing an independent study in poetry and performance.
What’s the hardest part of being self-employed?
The uncertainty of when the next job will come; and trying to balance the creative life with the business aspect. I have to be my road manager, accountant, and booking agent…it’s overwhelming.
What’s fulfilling to you about your work?
Getting to create. I get paid to read things I’ve written. It’s mind-boggling! To be a vessel for inspiration is really exciting and really humbling. Of course, there’s a weight and responsibility to that too.
How is your Williams education relevant in what you do today?
Williams gave me room to experiment. I think there were a lot of people there who already had a life plan in place. But for people who didn’t walk in with a plan, there were places like the dance and art departments, with professors and students who thought outside the box. If you didn’t fit in the box when you got there, you could make your own. I learned to make my own box.
Also, I’ll always be a student. Williams taught me how to formulate the right questions, dig deeper, not take things at face value. Getting my degree was just the beginning.