“Passivity is never going to unite us,” says Rachel Wiley, a longtime slam poetry competitor.
It’s a Monday night in July, and Rachel Wiley—a biracial, queer, body-positive, feminist poet from Columbus—is striding toward the microphone before a small but enthusiastic crowd in The Book Loft of German Village’s courtyard. She climbs a few steps, then squeezes her body—all 5 feet, 6 inches and 353 pounds—behind the podium. She brushes a strand of blonde-pink hair out of her eyes and adjusts her T-shirt, which is tied up beneath her chest and reads “Riots Not Diets.” Her makeup, as always, is flawless, her signature black eyeliner painted on her eyelids like wings. She laughs—Wiley is frequently laughing—and makes a joke about the gum she’s been chewing. She then opens her book and starts to read.
The crowd, mostly white, has gathered to see Amber Tamblyn, the Emmy-nominated actress and author who recently published a novel about sexual assault. Wiley is here, at Tamblyn’s request, to prime the crowd. But as the so-called warmup act reads, her voice carrying like a preacher’s outside one of Columbus’ most famous landmarks, the audience is rapt. She finishes a poem titled “When We Were Kings, One Day,” about her niece, the patriarchy and the pressures the little girl felt at the too-young age of 6 to be skinny and pretty and not too smart, but just smart enough, and from the back of the courtyard, a white man—not typically her target audience—murmurs “Wow.”
When Wiley is done reading—just a handful of poems from her most recent book, “Nothing is Okay”—the audience of about 50 people erupts in applause. Many in the crowd had never heard of her before. That fact boggles the minds of the poets and authors who do know her.
A longtime slam poetry competitor who was twice a finalist at the National Poetry Slam Competition, Wiley has toured the country performing her often funny, always thought-provoking works. “Nothing is Okay,” her second book of poetry, was released in March by Button Poetry, a publishing house based in Minneapolis. The print edition debuted at No. 1 in Amazon’s Gay and Lesbian Poetry category; the Kindle edition was No. 1 in Women’s Poetry. The first run sold out in a week, to her publisher’s delight. In April, a video of her performing one of her more famous poems, “The Fat Joke,” went viral on Facebook with more than 1 million views in 24 hours. By August, those views were up to more than 13 million.
“Rachel’s voice as a poet is a staple on the national stage, and in that way, she’s just so important to the community here,” explains Tamblyn when asked why she wanted Wiley to read ahead of her. “She’s a rare culmination of two things that matter so much in poetry: She’s a great performer and a great writer, and not everyone is both. Rachel is truly a double threat.”
She is also hard to ignore. Trained as an actress and brought up as a writer in the slam poetry world, Wiley reads her poems the way an actress would, with depth and feeling and a voice that ricochets around the room, dancing in front of an audience and refusing to let them look away. The topics she chooses are often uncomfortable, the kinds of things that, in a polite Midwestern city like Columbus, can be easier to gloss over than to address. But ignoring issues doesn’t make them go away—more often than not, neglect only makes them worse.
Slam began in Chicago in the 1980s, not long after Wiley was born, with poets performing at open mic nights that mirrored some of what was happening in hip-hop music. Slam poets don’t shy away from provocative topics—the most successful slam poets are usually drawn to them. Nothing is off limits; race, sexuality, religion, gender and poverty are all fair game. Slam poetry was in many ways an answer to academic poetry, more freewheeling, less focused on meter and form than prose and message—a reminder that some voices have been pushed down for so long that they can’t help but rise up.
This is Wiley's poetry. It demands that you listen. It demands that you consider what it might be like to be a biracial woman in a world mostly built for white people, what it might be like to be a queer woman in a world mostly built for straight people, what it might be like to be a fat woman in a world mostly built for skinny people, what it might be like to be a woman who struggles with depression and anxiety in a world mostly built for people who don’t. And it makes those demands while still being vulnerable and raw and joyful.
“I just have a low tolerance for fakery,” she says of her style. “Communication is hard enough—I need to be genuine.”
Rachel Wiley didn’t always write this way, and she definitely didn’t always plan to be a writer.
As a kid growing up near Olde Towne East, school didn’t come easy for her, though she loved acting. She ultimately decided to pursue a theater degree at Capital University, where, during an audition, a professor told her that she should consider changing majors. No one, he told her, would ever cast a fat girl as the lead.
Not long after she graduated from Capital, she made her way to a poetry open mic night in Columbus and liked what she saw. It was, she says, a natural fit.
“I’ve always talked in metaphors,” she says. “Poetry just made sense to me.”
When she eventually got on stage and realized she could combine her love of performing with her love of words, she threw herself into the scene wholeheartedly.
“She really wanted it,” says William Evans, a Columbus poet and founder of Writing Wrongs, a biweekly poetry open mic and slam series at Mikey’s Late Night Slice Downtown that sends local poets to national poetry competitions. “I imagine this happens in a lot of other art forms, where someone gets exposed to something and it seems like it’s something in their blood, and then it becomes almost like a compulsion for them. And Rachel was very much in that vein. She had a really good voice, but she was very much invested in wanting to come back and get better. … You can tell the difference between people who are just kind of coming out because they’re reading from their diary, or they’re coming out because they got applause one time and they got addicted to that, and then there’s people who like the work of writing new poems, performing and getting better, and that’s an eye-of-a-needle kind of thing, where you don’t see everyone doing that. She did.”
In 2010, Wiley competed in her first national poetry slams, intense competitions where poets perform their works onstage before a group of judges, trying to outscore other poets to advance round by round, with the winner taking out everyone else with their words, their performance and the heat they give off. The best slam poets tackle difficult issues, shaping them into flowing monologues that build to a crescendo, leaving the audience’s hearts pounding and brains churning. Wiley was a natural.
The next year, 2011, she represented Columbus in the Women of the World Poetry Slam, a four-day competition that culls the best female slam poets from smaller poetry slams around the country, narrowing them to a field of 12 finalists. Wiley was relatively new, an unknown voice in a tight-knit world of competitors. She not only made the finalist round, she finished fourth overall. Later that year, she joined Evans and a few other Columbus poets in competing on the Writing Wrongs National Slam team, which finished fourth out of 76 teams.
Those teams tackled uncomfortable topics, too—in 2011, Wiley and Evans co-performed one poem, “Leo Alexander Jones,” about the last conversation between a man on death row and his wife. The poem is based on the real-life Leo Alexander Jones, a black man who was convicted of killing a police officer in Florida in 1981, executed in 1998 and ultimately exonerated in 2005.
When Wiley writes about race, she is in part working through her own struggles with it. Her mother is white and her father is black, and her eyes and skin are light enough that she could, if she wanted, pass as a white person. That reality has often left her feeling adrift, never sure exactly where she fits, never sure exactly what identity to claim.
Sharon Udoh, the musician also known as Counterfeit Madison, recently performed with Wiley at Two Dollar Radio Headquarters, a bookstore/venue/community gathering space on Parsons Avenue on Columbus’ South Side. The two are close friends and talk frequently about race and their struggles with it. Udoh, who is black, is a first-generation American, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, an experience she describes as vastly different from the African-American kids in her neighborhood. She grew up, she says, “cultured by whiteness.”
That constant internal battle over identity—black, white or somewhere in the middle—will be, Udoh says, a lifelong struggle for Wiley.
“Everyone has their burdens, of course, but people talk about dark, black women have it the hardest in America, and, yeah, we have it pretty hard. But what’s it like to be only half of that? What do you do? You’re just white and black? Rachel doesn’t fit there, and she doesn’t fit here. Literally, genetically, she is in both races,” Udoh says. “And then, she’s large, and the world is not made for fat people.”
Wiley kept writing about race, and began writing more and more about her size. Her poetry started exploring the ways in which the shape of her body changed how people treated her. She had self-published a few chapbooks, but then publishing houses started noticing her. In 2014, Timber Mouse Publishing, an independent publisher in Austin, Texas, released her first book, “Fat Girl Finishing School.” Then, earlier this year, with the publication of “Nothing is Okay” and her viral video, she gained national acclaim.
“The Fat Joke,” the poem and performance that pushed her work in front of more eyes than ever before, riffs on the old joke about a patient complaining it hurts when they move their arm a certain way and the doctor replying, “So don’t move your arm that way.” In Wiley’s poem, the joke is on a character she calls Fat Girl. Every pursuit of medical care—from a hurt arm to a flu shot to an ear infection to depression—is a chance for a doctor to talk to her about weight loss surgery. Internet commenters, those people protected by the anonymity of a keyboard and a Wi-Fi connection, “claim concern for her health/suggest crash diets.” In the poem, Fat Girl begs the world for acceptance, “still manages to love her fat body,” tells the world, “I do not owe you shrinking … I do not owe you health, perceived or otherwise, to receive basic respect. I am deserving of existence. I am deserving of care. I am deserving of first no harm done.” The ending of the poem is more gut-punch than punchline:
“World says, ‘That’s the best joke we’ve heard all day.’”
“When I first started writing poetry, I refused to write about my size because I wanted to be more talented than I was fat,” she says now. “But I also then was living with this fear that eventually somebody was going to be like, ‘She’s not any good because she’s fat.’ If I said it first, nobody could weaponize it against me.
“Now, I feel like I’m writing for the years that I didn’t speak up. There’s that saying, ‘Be who you needed when you were 14 years old,’ and I needed me when I was 14 years old. So that’s part of it. And some of it’s just me still processing.”
To watch her perform is to witness vulnerability and a soul coming to terms with its feelings about a world that has not always been kind, to see a human being searching openly and honestly for her place in her society. Most of all, it is to witness love—both for the world around her and, gallingly to her trolls, for herself.
Wiley celebrates her body. She is an adept makeup artist but often Instagrams herself makeup-free. She loves fashion that shows off her figure. She has piercings across her face and tattoos across her body. One, on her right arm, is of Ursula the Sea Witch, a character from the Disney movie “The Little Mermaid.” Ursula is the villain in that story, a fat, half-woman/half-octopus creature in a strapless black dress and red lipstick who moves through the ocean like a lounge-club singer. Wiley paid for that tattoo with her first YouTube royalty check.
“She’s a sea witch—she can take form however she wants—and she looks like this,” Wiley says. “And I’m like, ‘Yes! She’s sexy. That dress goes all the way down her back.’ So yeah. She’s necessary on my body.”
The world is frequently unkind to women, even more unkind to women of color and extra-specially unkind to women whose bodies are large. Because her poetry and words are available for anyone to read, and because the Internet makes it easy to find her, Wiley receives messages from people she has never met. Most of the messages are supportive and good and welcome. But some are not.
One she received in June through her Facebook page started like this: “hey fatty.” She has an automatic reply set up to respond to each message she gets on Facebook—she receives a lot and doesn’t always have time to reply immediately—and to that automatic reply (which includes both an emoji heart and the phrase, “I am grateful”), this person responded “fatass bitch.” Another message said simply, “Eat a salad.”
Wiley has developed a thick skin for those types of messages. “I know it’s not really about me, and that it’s usually something they have to unpack.” But on the wrong day, they can still sting.
Sometimes she trolls her trolls, and sometimes she engages in longer, more meaningful conversations with them. Once, she even ended up counseling a woman about the woman’s own struggles with weight and her relationship with her husband. The hateful messages, though, are a clear reminder that, despite how far we’ve come as a society, we still have a long way to go.
“Nothing is Okay” came out in the heart of the #MeToo movement, when women across the country were reclaiming their voices and speaking out about sexual abuse and harassment. Wiley and many other slam poets have been demanding their stories be heard for years—and in this time of great division, when even the most basic of conversations can turn explosive, it feels like the rest of us might have something to learn from Wiley and her peers, who have been talking about difficult things for decades.
Spoken-word and slam poetry are suited to this divisive time in our history, when the basics of how we talk to one another and what we talk about and who gets a voice are all up for debate. By its nature, our national divide is a big problem to untangle. But, as slam poets know, shying away from it isn’t going to solve anything. And maybe, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, those of us who’ve had a voice for so long should pull up a chair and listen to those who haven’t.
“Passivity is never going to unite us,” Wiley says. “It’s all right to be uncomfortable. Get uncomfortable.”