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Interaction Takes the Stage at Squawk

By Edward F. Coleman, Crimson Staff Writer

Though oral poetry peaked in the 1990s as a revival of the post-war 1960s movement made famous by artists such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, its audience has greatly diminished in a 21st century world dominated by scripted and self-conscious, rather than spontaneous, performance. At Harvard, where most art—in the theater, gallery, or on paper—presents itself as a carefully polished final product, the spirit of the spoken word tradition and its interactive nature are rarely available to students looking for a consistently available venue. One stronghold at Harvard remains however; on Thursday nights, artists at the Harvard Epworth Methodist Church unleash the Unchainable Squawk.

Every week, an avant-garde, atypically bohemian crowd sporting overgrown hairdos and too-tight jeans gathers for a “session” at the Squawk Coffeehouse—an open mic remedy that banishes the stress of the long week. Unlike open mics geared to one form of artistry like music or poetry, Squawk opens up the floor to any and all types of performance. The organizers aren’t choosy, so long as performers deliver complete “phonetic liquidity.” By the end of the night the result of unrestricted performance is a blend of passion and spontaneity.

Formed in 1989, Squawk is the brainchild of poet Richard Cambridge, cartoonist and poet Mick Cusimano, actress Jesse Piaia, and performer Lee Kidd. Squawk began as a way for artists and poets to enhance their artistic experiences and has essentially remained faithful to its original intent.

“Some of us came from the 60s tradition and studied the Beat Generation,” said Cusimano, who along with the other founders still actively performs and manages Squawk two decades later. “We saw things they did and tried to take it one step further.”

Throughout the night, people trickle in, bringing with them their art of choice: guitar, poetry, short stories, skits, rants, and more. These people come from far and wide, both geographically and socioeconomically. The Coffeehouse has attracted visitors from all over the country and abroad.

No night is ever the same, as the performances vary based on whatever talent walks in the door. The unorthodox surfaces quite regularly, as jugglers, actors, and mimes grace—or shame—the stage. Even nudity makes appearances; while some performers tamely sing their covers or recite their original poetry, others are long on words and short on clothing. These wild performers have been known to shed their garb for their art, which calls for nudity... just because.

Whatever the routine, no one is merely a member of the audience. Squawk hearkens back to a time when performance was more interactive. A vacuum of infectious energy, the coffeehouse sucks in its viewers, who are persuaded by their friends to take control of the mic or goaded by those on stage to speak up in response to the performances.

At the end of the night, when no one has anything else to perform, Kidd bids farewell with a ritualistic closing statement. He beckons all to join him as he praises the Unchainable Squawk and all other manifestations of free and open performance. This unusual blend of artistry departs from today’s streamlined, stylized media and is a refreshingly thought-provoking take on what “performance” means—art that stresses interaction rather than mere reaction.

“I go home with all these images that are boiling up inside me and they are all unique images,” Kidd says. “They were not given to me by the TV or by the paper or by all the canned images around us. They were given to us by true people.”

More than anything, Squawk’s user-friendly atmosphere brings together a complete group of strangers, if only for a night.

“As far as open mic nights go, I think this is probably a level or several above a lot of open mic nights I’ve been too,” says John Davey, a musician from Indiana. “Most of the people are here for a similar purpose.”

That purpose? None other than unbridled and free Unchainable Squawk.

—Staff writer Edward R. Coleman can be reached at efcolem@fas.harvard.edu.

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