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Davidson student-athlete scores poetry slam dunk

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick

You can read the words of Amanda Ottaway’s poem “Godwinks,” but the ink on the page pales to watching her perform it. Ottaway’s whole body tells the story, her arms rising and falling with the timbre of her voice, her hands clutching alternately at each other and at the air.

A “slam” poet, Ottaway wrote the tribute for a family friend who died from pancreatic cancer. She calls Greg Griffith one of the great inspirations of her life, a man who stirred her to rediscover her faith when she was adrift and who taught her so many beautiful lessons through his battle with the disease.

Ottaway, a Davidson senior, is also an artist on the basketball court, where she plays forward for the Wildcats. She acknowledges that “it’s two completely different groups of people” but is excited to report that a diving student-athlete recently joined the slam poetry group (called FreeWord), so the two can commiserate about long days shuttling between practices and competitions of both sport and poetry. 

Like most student-athletes, Ottaway  reports that she balances her two interests effectively, occasionally attending FreeWord meetings with hair damp from a post-practice shower or missing an event because of travel for a basketball game.

“I don’t remember who told me this, but somebody said if you want to do it, there’s time for it,” she said. “It’s tough to balance sometimes, but slam helps me find an identity for myself outside of athletics, and that’s been really valuable in college. You’re trying to figure out who you are.”

Getting involved in slam poetry, something that doesn’t seem common for a student-athlete, helped shape the English major’s dreams for her future, as well. Ottaway, who will graduate from the North Carolina college in May, learned about the power of words through both the classroom and the slam stage. 

“I’ve learned that words can be an agent for social change, and I’d like to continue that,” Ottaway said. 

FreeWord does community service events at elementary schools as far from Davidson as Boston. The group members use slam poetry to teach kids about expressing themselves through words and performance. As an intern at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in 2011, Ottaway wrote a slam poetry curriculum to be used in conjunction with an exhibit entitled “The Power of Children.”

“It teaches kids to express what they’re thinking through performance and words,” Ottaway said. “It’s been really cool to see people embrace slam (poetry) like this.”

Ottaway, who got her performing gene from her father (he performs in local theater productions), opened up the eyes of her basketball teammates, too. The young women will attend her FreeWord showcases, creating a ruckus before she takes the stage and participating in the performance, even if they might not really like it.

“They are so supportive,” Ottaway said. “The audience is supposed to snap, and they’re starting to do that. The emcee will always do a shout-out to the women’s basketball team before I come up (on stage).”

Ottaway is opening up many different eyes to her art form. Even her coaches attended a showcase the fall of her junior year. When she attended the national slam poetry competition with FreeWord, she said few attendees knew much about basketball. But moving in the different worlds has fulfilled her.

“It’s good for me to be in this group of artists,” she said. “It’s a whole side of myself I hadn’t explored until I got to college.”