Bianca Swift

Bianca Smith practices poetry in Andrews Hall on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

When Bianca Swift steps onto a stage to perform her poetry, she becomes the story she is telling, whether it is about her own experiences being African American or those of famous African American writers. 

Swift, a junior English major with a specialization in poetry and creative writing, has been performing slam poetry since middle school and self-published a book of her poems titled “How Brilliant this Dark Glows: A Book of Poems” last fall.

She said the reason she wrote the book was simply because her mom called her and told her she should. Her mother, she said, inspired her love for poetry. 

“She would read us Maya Angelou’s poems as children’s books,” Swift said. “I had ‘Still I Rise’ memorized by the time I was, like, 8.”

Then, in middle school, Swift said a teacher sent her to compete at a poetry competition at a local pizza shop in her hometown of Omaha, where her love of poetry continued to grow. 

Since then, she said she has competed in many poetry slams, like Louder Than a Bomb Great Plains and the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. Swift is a part of UNL’s Slam Poetry Team and said her favorite place to to write is surrounded by her teammates.  

“I enjoy writing with the members of my poetry team because we can all kind of get together, and it all feels like everyone is doing something and creating something,” Swift said. 

Swift has also written short stories, essays and memoirs, but said poetry is her favorite. She said she writes about her skin color, how people relate to her skin color, her body and her perspective growing up in a generation she finds unique. 

“The things that usually inspire me are whenever I experience a kind of ignorance or a kind of racism or a kind of microaggression,” she said. “It’s not necessarily inspiring because they’re not great things, but they do get the work done.” 

At slam poetry competitions, Swift said she brings previously prepared poems that are shorter than three minutes and ten seconds. Five judges score each poem between one and 10, with 10 being the best. The lowest and highest scores are dropped, and the rest of the scores are added together to give the final score for that poem, Swift said. 

While memorizing for a slam is hard, Swift said the hardest part of performing is the emotional toll it can take. Life experiences are what inspire Swift’s writing, but she said revisiting old memories can be difficult. 

“Slam poetry acts as a catharsis, but there is kind of a thin line between catharsis and then just reacquainting yourself with bad memories,” she said.

Trina Creighton, associate professor of broadcast journalism, said she invited Swift to read some of her poems as a fun way to start the rap unit in her Social Justice, Human Rights and the Media class. 

“She was so good. She did two poems, and you could have heard a pin drop,” Creighton said. “The [students] were into it. They clapped; they applauded.”

She said Swift’s love for poetry showed in her performance. 

“She’s one of those young people who just put her heart into it,” she said. “In the middle of one [of] her verses, she starts singing acapella. It was too cool. I was so pleased with her performance and how the [students] reacted to it.” 

Swift said the environment of slam poetry competitions is one of the best parts of competing. 

“The slam poetry community is always amazing,” she said. “You go in there, you can wear whatever you want, you can be whoever you want. It’s so great.”

For Swift, poetry is more than just words on a page; it is a way for her to show the world who she truly is. 

“[My favorite part of poetry is] being listened to,” Swift said. “I think that there are very few experiences where you truly get listened to, and I feel like slam poetry [is one].”