There is something magical about the experience of listening to poetry live. From 6 to 8 p.m. on April 21, sitting on the second-floor patio at GDS’ first spoken-word poetry night, I experienced firsthand performed poetry’s ability to speak to people on a profound level and engage with complex ideas. Watching students and professionals alike take the mic and perform, one after another, was like witnessing a metaphysical dialogue: call and then response, affirmations of ideas followed by their contradictions.
The event began just after it stopped raining (as if rain had stopped for poetry—how poetic). The organizers had laid out a buffet of food. As people trickled in, lights, decorations and music DJ’ed by art teacher Adrian Loving completed the atmosphere. It was not long before college counselor Darius Pardner, whose upbeat hosting smoothed the transitions between poets throughout the evening, took to the stage. He introduced the event’s faculty sponsors, English Department Chair Aïsha Sidibé and PE teacher Kevin Jackson, and set ground rules for the audience, including encouraging people to snap, clap and cheer to show appreciation for each poet’s vulnerability.
The relationship between the audience and the performer is arguably the most essential component of spoken-word poetry (similar to slam poetry, in which poets compete). Vocal emphasis and inflection matter much more here than in other forms of poetry, because connecting with listeners through performance is just as important as the language itself. That connection was a constant at the Thursday evening GDS event, making even people who were not performing feel like they were participating.
The stylistic and thematic variation of the poetry was particularly fascinating to see. Topics ranged from the toll of racism to superficiality and self-doubt in a high school social climate. Language choices varied as well; some poets favored a more imagery-heavy style, while others used simple language to convey messages more explicitly.
Two complementary poems about racism did the latter. A clear-eyed, steadily performed poem by junior Christian Freeman examined the burden of historical racism on modern-day Black people. Sophomore Joshua Reynolds’ poem thrust attendees into a visceral understanding of the terror of being Black in America, reaching its climax as he stared intently at the audience after cataloguing double-standards and injustices. Together, they painted a picture of the way both past and present racism have robbed Black people of appreciation, equal treatment and, often, their lives.
Among numerous other student performers, sophomore Talia Berger critiqued high schoolers’ materialism using shoes as an example; junior Ben Carter humorously, but pointedly, confronted his insecurities; and sophomore Zoe Ferguson lovingly framed her mother’s life in the context of racism, relationships and resilience. Above all, distinctness of voice was evident in every performance. In a night about connection and affinity, individuality was equally important, each poet’s unique perspective representing essential parts of a larger, collective whole.
The two professional poets, Da Truth and Backpack Jeff, contributed their adult life experiences to the collage of ideas.
Da Truth was my favorite of the two; her poetry was rhythmic and precise. At one point during her performance she rallied the audience to sing along to the hook of a popular Queen Latifah song: “U.N.I.T.Y., that’s a unity.” It was an almost spiritual experience.
The other pro poet, Backpack Jeff, examined self-doubt, love and his own success. He delivered his poems with conviction, but his self-reflection sometimes came across as self-congratulatory. At one point when he referred to his expansive collection of shoes in a poem about the turn of his financial fortunes, Backpack Jeff stopped to acknowledge Berger’s earlier point about the pitfalls of consumerist culture.
The interplay between Berger and Backpack Jeff’s ideas in that moment highlighted how we can understand concepts more deeply through one another. Interactions between the audience and performers, as well as between performers, were ultimately the key to the night’s success, fostering feelings of connection and community, and deepening social and cultural reflection.
As the night drew to a close, what struck me particularly was the faces of fellow audience members, how much everyone seemed to be enlivened by watching people perform. What spoken-word poetry does so well, which was on display on the GDS high school patio, is removing the elitism from poetry; it is an art form about reaching people, whatever their background, ethnicity or context. It was an exhilarating night—participatory and challenging, philosophical and penetrating, cerebral and deeply felt. If and when Slam Poetry Night returns, I for one will be sure not to miss it.