Slam: UB student Tom Dreitlein masters the craft of stage poetry
The first time Tom Dreitlein performed his poetry was at a coffee shop open mic when he was 16 years old after his older brother Keith pressured him to perform for Dreitlein’s then-girlfriend.
Dreitlein remembers how horribly awkward the entire experience was when they arrived at the shop, family in tow.
“I’ve learned that there are poetry open mics and there are music open mics,” Dreitlein said. “There are some beautiful things that do both but those are few and far between. This was a music open mic.”
Dreitlein performed his poem, which he described as “angsty, loud and indignant.” His family went crazy, but the rest of the crowd was silent and confused. The emcee gave him an offhand compliment but soon after kicked him out of the venue for having his arm around his then-girlfriend.
Dreitlein, a junior communication and English major, has become a figure in the Buffalo poetry community for his work. He won the 2015 Youth Buffalo/Niagara International Poetry Slam, has given two Ted X talks and started the temporary club UB Speaks.
Dreitlein’s poem “Frankie” is what allowed him to create waves in the poetry community – it provided the opportunity for him to have features – paid gigs – work with more people and compete at a higher level.
The poem is about a longtime friend who is transgendered and his process of transitioning. Though the subject of the poem, Frank, knows that Dreitlein often performs the poem and accepts it, Dreitlein struggled with the idea of telling someone else’s story.
“It’s really complicated when you get on stage and you’re telling someone else’s struggle and then you’re given money,” Dreitlein said. “Frank is fine with me performing the poem – he’s one of my best friends – but I had to work through it on my own. I wrote another poem about that experience.”
Appropriation of narrative – or the idea that it’s not always your story to tell – is what Dreitlein’s Ted X Buffalo talk focused on. He discussed the guilt of being paid to tell someone else’s story and about how his second poem he wrote about the experience is an apology to Frank for using his story in this way.
Dreitlein’s first talk was for Ted X youth, where he spoke to high school students about nonverbal communication and how the way people acts affects how others view them.
“I wanted to drive home how much we communicate through our actions everyday whether it’s a one-on-one interaction or what you do and how it speaks about who you are and your values,” Dreitlein said. “As a performer I try to be really aware of it while on stage so I just paralleled that idea in my talk”
Much of Dreitlein’s work is derived from situations he has to work through and relationships, but not just romantic ones – friendships, family and all sorts of interactions are accounted for. The poems are based around the power dynamics of these relationships, what it’s like to grow up around other people and how time changes those relationships.
The artist considers himself a performer, but is looking to improve his written word. More recently, he has begun reading more poetry and looking to create poems that read well on the page – performing them would just take the poem to a higher level.
“It revolutionized my whole thought process because there’s so much about what it means on the page and there’s so much to do on the page,” Dreitlein said. “That’s something I never really thought about because I was always on stage and it was always performance stuff for me. I’m working toward having every poem be a page poem that I’m performing”
He also credits his involvement in the poetry community in Buffalo with improving his writing. They encourage him to write more and push him to work harder. He said that without this community, he wouldn’t have continued writing.
His love for poetry began in high school, where he started watching videos on YouTube. He found Def Poetry Jam, a series on HBO, and watched rapper Common perform. Dreitlein was surprised by the lack of beat – or any sort of music – and how cool the performance was.
For two years, he taught himself how to perform through these YouTube videos.
“I was showing my friend a poem I really loved and he said, ‘You could probably do that,’” Dreitlein said. “I’ve always fooled around with writing, I’ve always liked language and I’ve always been a performer.”
One day in his high school math class, Dreitlein found himself suddenly inspired – he wrote down his first poem in 20 minutes.
In middle school, Dreitlein was part of plays written by one of the teachers. He remembers being cast as the villain because of his loud personality. He continued dabbling with the arts in high school, where he started a poetry club and was captain of the improv team. He also maintained an athletic career by participating in both rugby and football.
He continues to play rugby at UB but when it came to improv, he had a hard time fitting it into his schedule.
“It’s kind of funny because when I came back from high school I was like, ‘I’m doing the poet thing now,’ and everyone was like ‘Why aren’t you doing the improv thing?’” Dreitlein said. “I was the class clown in high school and the captain of the improv team so it was kinda weird, but it’s just the thing I fell into.”
He still goes back to his home in Fairport, Rochester to speak to high school students and perform for them.
Dreitlein leads a busy life – he has been participating in poetry slams through PureInk since his freshman year, which he’s won several times. Aside from playing on the UB men’s rugby team, he’s also a resident adviser on campus.
Dreitlein’s rugby teammate and fellow RA Colton Kells is one of the artist’s biggest supporters.
“A lot of our teammates are really supportive of him and they really like it,” Kells said. “Whenever he performs or a new video comes out we always ask to see it.”
Kells grew up eight minutes away from Dreitlein. They played rugby and football together in high school. Kells has watched Dreitlein grow as a poet as well and remembers what his work was like when he first started.
“His first few poems were about very general things but now they’re much more personal,” Kells said. “You can see his emotion when he performs.”
Though his brothers will tease him occasionally, Dreitlein says everyone is supportive of his work. Members of the rugby team will attend his events and people in the poetry community will ask about the team.
“I’ll be hanging out at rugby practice, you know, we’re beating each other up and then after I go directly to a poetry workshop,” Dreitlein said. “You’re in the locker room one minute and then you’re sitting with a bunch of people talking about third wave feminism the next.”
Dreitlein thinks that the two activities – poetry and rugby – compliment each other in some way. Poetry is abstract and requires him to use his head in order to work through things whereas rugby is real, physical, reactionary and based upon instinct. He feels that it “pulls him back to the concrete” and of course, keeps him in shape.
The same way he practices for rugby, he’s turned poetry into a “blue-collar job” in which he constantly works at it, writes multiple drafts of poems and is trying to constantly produce new material.
Dreitlein cites his brothers as his heroes and role models.
Dreitlein lead his brother Matthew into poetry. Matthew was also a writer, but predominantly focused on fiction and science-fiction writing. He sets aside three hours every Sunday to work on his novel, but is quickly mastering poetry.
The two often discuss their work when they’re able to see each other.
“Whenever we discuss slamming against each other, we both wear the same smirks we did when the world was just backyard, recess and endless summer,” Matthew said. “Truth be told, he has always been the one of us that is more motivated by competition.”
Though the two haven’t been able to compete against each other yet, their opportunity will come in the spring, when they’re both able to attend the same slam.
Matthew has been able to watch his younger brother grow as an artist and is proud to see his work on the stage.
“At any poetry show, there is always someone who is clearly holding up the stage and pushing the other performers simply by embodying the highest caliber of performance and craft,” Matthew said. “Thomas consistently holds up the stage and inspires other poets to excellence.”
Matthew believes his younger brother is a leader in any community he takes part in, as he’s organized events for hundreds of attendees and has set time to work with the youth in his community at home.
As for the future, Dreitlein knows he doesn’t want to be a full-time poet, which would require him to tour six months at a time. The other path he could take would be to receive his Ph.D. and teach, but he doesn’t want that either.
“It’s not a decision, it’s something that would happen – you have to blow up and have a hit poem to be able to start it,” Dreitlein said. “But I don’t want to tour forever, that’s not the life I want to lead.”
He hopes to release a chapbook, or a collection of his work, before he graduates.
To Dreitlein, there is no “slam poetry.”
“There is the poetry slam and there are poems that you slam with,” Dreitlein said. “When you reduce poems to the genre of ‘slam poetry’ to me, you are perpetuating the negative aspects of slam. When people criticize slam they call it plebian, it’s like dumb poetry. But it is more accessible – you have to win over the audience … I believe in performance poetry, or poetry that is meant to be on a stage, but I fight against slam poetry every day.”
Tori Roseman is the senior features editor and can be reached at email@example.com.