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poets took place as a reference point, the spoken word movement was unique: it was a poetry that would not and could not be published, poetry motivated and constituted by the rough edges of populism.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.
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