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Song of Myself

Spoken word showcases cathartic yet fleeting self-expression

By Melissa C. Wong
By Alexander J.B. Wells, Crimson Staff Writer

Cassandra E. Euphrat Weston ’14 still gets nervous every time she performs her poetry. “Especially if what I’ve written isn’t very good,” she adds. “But you have to perform it as if it’s the best thing in the world—and then it will be.”

However, Euphrat Weston also feeds on the fear intrinsic to spoken word. “It’s absolutely terrifying but absolutely addictive,” she says. “You write poems to figure things out—and once you’ve found them, they’re scary.” During Optional Winter Activities Week Euphrat Weston helped to organize a Spoken Word Extravaganza, which drew nearly 200 people to its final performance, and is starting a student organization for spoken word called Speak Out Loud. “We want to encourage everybody to write and perform spoken word,” she says. “Poetry can be a very solitary endeavor but we want to create a completely supportive community of poets and writers.” Though spoken word is finding its place at Harvard, it is largely relegated to the undergraduate body and formally outside the academy. After all, spoken word is a form of expression that has historically turned away from institutions and relied instead on the individual voice, the basement café, and the symbolic portent of the open mic.

As spoken word lore has it, the first poetry slam—a competition of spoken word poetry—was held at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in November 1986; its organizer Marc Smith was a construction worker and poet who saw slam as a rebuke of establishment poetry, which he considered snobby and effete. As he later told the Smithsonian Magazine, “The very word ‘poetry’ repels people ... the slam gives it back to the people.”

The performative and fiercely inclusive world of slam grew in support; in 1993, MTV screened an Unplugged special dedicated to spoken word. Though a resurgence of interest in the Beat poets took place as a reference point, the spoken word movement was unique: it was a poetry that would not and could not be published, poetry motivated and constituted by the rough edges of populism.

Today, spoken word is still a form that insists on authenticity. Bob Holman, the original slammaster at the famed Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City, makes his own dramatic manifesto in the foreword to the book he co-edited “Aloud! Voices from the Nuyorican Café:” “Poetry has found a way to drill through the wax that has been collecting for decades! Poetry is no longer an exhibit in a Dust Museum! Poetry is alive; poetry is allowed!” As such, the spoken word scene incipient at Harvard and flourishing around Cambridge reflects spoken word’s essential qualities in its dogged inclusivity and troubled drive to competition.

SQUEEZE AND PULL

It makes sense that you have to go downstairs to get to the spoken word night at the Cantab Lounge in Central Square. Mute gestures at the bartender—a muffled “where’s the poetry, mate?”—and he points to a black door on a black wall, right next to the exit sign. I walk through reddish stairs that are shedding their paint and another black door: they’re charging five dollars tonight, because it’s a special occasion, but the room’s still packed.

The night begins with an open mic. I nestle into a corner and hug my knees. The first performer looks like the kind of nondescript guy you walk past 10 times a day, but when he reads his voice has the morbid, gravelly rhythm of an older William S. Burroughs. His grey hair is combed neatly down the middle and scraggly at the sides. The poem he reads is from another age, a meticulous record in dialog and detail of long adventures and short sentences. “Time,” he intones, “is not so slow as whiskey over ice.”

The next performer is a regular; the crowd starts laughing before she starts talking. “Walk of Shame Haikus,” she declares, and adjusts her suspenders. “One. Funny how the dawn / Turns a cocktail dress into / A whore’s uniform.” Her successor on the mic is professorial in his confidence; he offers 25% off his Adult Education course before he begins “The Virgin of Guadalupé.” Every time he says Guadalupé, he pops the long ‘é’ with the relish of a connoisseur. “Kiss me, mother of Mexico’s hope!”

The lights are meant to be dim but they catch peaked hats, bald patches, and androgynous crops of hair throughout the room. It’s hard to tell who’s here to listen and who’s here to perform. Shaundai E. Person steps up the microphone and doesn’t know how to adjust it. The crowd shouts: “Squeeze and pull!” She gets it and smiles shily. “Is it your first time?” Her nod is met with the biggest cheer of the evening. The moment she begins, the coyness is gone: she tells a ferocious tale of adultery and revenge. Later, Person tells me that her fiancé is big in the spoken word scene and she is just getting started. “At first I was real nervous on stage, but you have to put it all aside and think of people as just your friends around the coffee table,” she explains, while her fiancé beside her pretends not to listen. “In poetry you say what you feel and you can’t possibly be the only person that feels that way.” As I turn to go, another woman approaches her with compliments and questions.

SIGHT ON SELF

The lure of spoken word is not hard to understand. To have a completely accepting community of listeners who are also poets—or poets who are also listeners—is conducive to expression, particularly when that community defines itself by its diversity. “The reason I love spoken word,” Euphrat Weston explains, “is that it’s such a powerful thing for someone to write and then perform, right then in the moment, their own truths. I love it for its insistence on inclusivity and validating existences and emotions.”

One criterion rules the rest in spoken word poetry, and that is authenticity. A spoken word space is non-judgmental by definition, or at least by convention. The act of performance allows for an affectionate bond between the audience and the poet, which is especially apparent during open mics: in an audience of amateurs, everyone is part performer and part observer. It is a perfect setting for identity poetics—confessionals, polemics, and experiments with alternate selves abound.

Teake ’12, who has only one name—“I don’t know what my parents were thinking”—started spoken word poetry in Washington, D.C., last summer. ”As long as it’s true and good and engaging,” he says, “you don’t have anything to worry about when you get on stage. It’s not so much about agreeing—it’s about making connections through art.” The formula seems to be a little like this: write about yourself, and then convince the audience that it’s relevant to them.

For Teake, the externalization of personal identity issues often comes back to one important point: “being of mixed race in a country that loves to categorize people—the difficulties and the benefits and the joy that I take from that.” A studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator, Teake has focused his academic career on different conceptions of identity. “I try to use what I learned in my classes in a different way: with lots of theoretical ideas and social justice issues, but using the vernacular and making it accessible without jargon from academic circles.” The rebellion of singular voices against the identity prescriptions of establishment is a recurring feature of spoken word at large, according to Teake. The preeminence of the moment of performance gives privilege to individuality in a way that is opposed to dogma from the outset. Even the progressive academic source of Teake’s inspiration is mediated by his own style.

Euphrat Weston agrees about the importance of individuality and developmental identity. “Technique falls into place because of the things you have to say,” she says. “It personalizes other stories that would otherwise just be another statistic.”

SIGNIFICANT FIGURES

While individuality is inherent in spoken word, the competitive framework of a slam threatens to turn those personal stories back into statistics by reducing poems to comparative scores.

At the Cantab, it’s routine that a slam follow the open mic. Tonight, it’s the first round of try-outs for the team that will go to the National Poetry Slam being held this year in Boston—hosted in part by none other than the Cantab Lounge. A short break follows the open mic and the slam begins. The emcee takes the mic and says, “we are going to have two hours of spoken word poetry. You will be tired; you will cry. You will also laugh, and you will break your heart then build it up again better.”

The National Poetry Slam began in 1990, with three teams; it now features around 80 teams and lasts five days. The popularity of slam, however, is confined to the private sphere. When asked what makes a good poem in an interview, Yale Professor Harold Bloom lamented the rise of competitive performance poetry: “Now it’s all gone to hell. I can’t bear these accounts I read in the Times and elsewhere of these poetry slams, in which various young men and women in late-spots are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other … This isn’t even silly; it is the death of art.”

At the Cantab, the crowd climbs over itself to get a drink, or to line up for the restrooms, or to get another drink. I watch on from my corner and scribble, but before I know it I am being addressed. Brian S. Ellis has been coming here for five years, writing poems and “helping out.” He has a long schoolboy face with toothbrush sideburns and a wisp of beard; his green, striped tie is loud under his grey suit vest. Ellis wants me to be one of the five audience judges for the slam. “Just make a judgment,” he tells me. “Just do what your gut tells you.” My inexperience is an advantage: “Because the job of art is to communicate, the job of the poet is to make you feel!”

I am given a marker and a whiteboard. “You have three seconds to make a snap judgment about art, based on how much the poem makes you feel.” The scoring is Olympic, of course, with 0.0 the worst imaginable poem and 10.0 a perfect work of art. The job comes with free drinks.

A young man addresses a powerful monologue to autism, externalizing the discourse that would confine his life and trying to rise above the label given to him. I give it 8.7. Every time I give a bad score, I feel compelled to wipe off the board quickly. The death of a girlfriend: 9.2. Coming out: 7.8 (the jokes were a bit corny). The judge across from me—a self-styled ‘writer,’ a young bloke who stretches a black polo over thickset shoulders—keeps giving scores above 9, including a 9.9 and a 10. (Eventually he gives a 5 to a poem about the many types of smurf erotica, which climaxes in the line “who’s your Papa Smurf now?”) I can’t tell which of us is missing the point.

The most powerful poems are the most extreme ones. The rawer, the more confronting, the more I am inclined to give a high score. Little gasps or shouts go up from the audience from time to time. Every bad score is booed, occasionally accompanied by a “what’s wrong with you?” I only get one of these.

It turns out that I have done well—I’m told to come back next week—and it was just as they said: I laughed, I cried, and I confidently adjudicated between decimal points.

As these scores imply, there are better spoken word poets and worse ones. There are celebrities and no-hopers. There are enormous competitions where the very best rise to the top and become household names. Even the anti-elitist movement has its elite, and the slam is where they are knighted.

The folks at the Cantab weren’t competitive about things; slam was just a play for intrigue. Euphrat Weston claims that the all slams she has been to give a disclaimer about the form’s artifice. But there is no avoiding the effect that competition has on poetry. If the spoken word movement insists on inclusivity and authenticity, then what makes a winner and a loser? And if the quantity of emotion is the only metric, then what stops an art form from veering toward cliché and bombast?

CATHARSIS AND COMMUNION

For spoken word at large, the difference lies in the moment of performance, which radically changes both the nature and the goals of the art form. The act of performing a poem undoes it as a fixed, discrete unit of language. The poem is contained entirely in one unrepeated act of enunciation. The audience hears the voice of the poet, sees the tremble of a lip or the wave of a hand, and so is present for the moment of creation. Permanence is exchanged for relevance.

Euphrat Weston has many poems that she no longer performs. “I think, ‘I can’t read this anymore because it’s not me anymore,’” she says. Far from a bid to universal utterance, spoken word poets aspire to an expression of only that self that exists in the moment of performance. And that moment is contingent: the poem depends on the time, the place, and the audience. The act of performance is political and particularized, and ultimately the sole existence of the work—hence the supremacy of the individual voice, and the anti-dogmatic tendencies of the spoken word form.

In his essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argues that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.” Spoken word poets do not write, they speak, and through their speech they insist on the point of origin so reduce the text to an instant. The fluid, developmental self has one opportunity to be understood correctly—at the expense, perhaps, of the complexity and the enduring richness of the work.

Spoken word represents a momentary catharsis for the listener and a lasting therapy for the poet: it is an opportunity for beauty and challenge and communion. In this sense, spoken word poetry departs from the conventional aims of art—it insists on the relevance of the poet over the transcendence of the poem. For a poem to instantly come alive, it has to face the fact of its immediate and inescapable death.

—Staff writer Alexander J.B. Wells can be reached at alexander.wells@college.harvard.edu.

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