Three Women Who Turned Me On to Spoken-Word Poetry

Feminism, Lit

I’m a relative newcomer to the world of spoken word and slam poetry. Spending sleepless nights pouring over Neruda, it never really occurred to me that poetry, when performed out loud, could draw fervent crowds. Discovering the phenomenon of poetry slams was pretty exciting: this thing that I’d always loved in an obscure, solitary way was suddenly resonant to a whole roomful of people. I loved the immediacy of it, the way the reaction to a poem was made palpable. However, I think a lot of people have a misconception of spoken word that it’s something like the hilarious parody on the webseries Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl (look it up). While there is indeed performance poetry that bad, I think it’s really just as diverse as any other genre. Here are some of ladies whose voices I’m in love with.

Andrea Gibson

… The doctor who stitched me up asked me if I did it for attention.

For the record:

if you have ever done anything for attention

this poem is a tension.

Title it with your name.

It will scour the city bridge every night you spend kicking at your shadow, staring at the river,

it does not want to find your body doing anything but loving what it loves.

My first encounter with spoken word poetry was a prolonged Andrea Gibson youtube binge. My sister recommended her to me the winter of my freshman year of college, when I happened to be struggling with a severe bout of depression. I felt raw and messy, and Andrea was an antidote because she was raw and incisive — it was consoling that someone could be at once so vulnerable and so powerful, both emotive and lucid.

A writing instructor at a workshop I attended said that “to write about sadness is generous.” For me, Andrea Gibson embodies that generosity. That’s not to say she’s melancholic — she can just as easily be funny or wry or angry or ecstatic. But in a culture where “navel-gazing” or “oversharing” seem to be amongst the worst vices a writer — particularly a female writer — can commit, she is a testament to the power of candor, of emotional authenticity.

Stylistically, the most apt description I can come up with for Gibson’s poetry and performance is “effortless lyricism.” For all the nuances of her craft — wordplay, metaphor, her literal voice and inflection — there is always this sense of instinct, of ease. Andrea Gibson’s reality is one where the girls she loves float through her bloodstream and hang on her “monkey-bar” ribcage. She wants to give you glimpses of it.

Lenelle Moïse

… Some thirsty throats cope,

manage dirges in Cajun, in Zydeco

out-of-state kin can’t get through

refugees, refugees

remember ruined homes

a preacher remembers the book of revelations

still, saviors wait to save

and the living wade with the countless dead

while the wealthy president flies overhead, up where brown people look-

up where brown people look like spoiled jumbalaya, stewing from a distance in their down-there distress…

I’d seen her before. She had this warm, full, throaty voice and an electric physical presence. She managed to have full command of the audience’s attention and at the same time engage us naturally in her performance: using call and response, asking questions, and just maintaining an energy and intimacy that’s often inhibited by “the fourth wall.” I was struck by the way she wove her poems seamlessly into her speech — segues from story to story. She was poignant, radical, funny, down-to-earth, and thoroughly innovative onstage. The evening left me with completely new (and frankly more positive) connotations for the term “performance art.” The piece was also, very genuinely, a catalyst for political thought and discussion, though Lenelle never hits you over the head with an an agenda.

A playwright and actress as well as a poet, Moïse merges genres, working vocal jazz, movement, and storytelling techniques into her poetry performance. She writes about growing up Haitian-American, bullies, first crushes, sexuality, hate crime, Hurricane Katrina, gender, language, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. She’s fierce as fuck, and you should hear what she has to say.

Rachel McKibbens

Go with the one who loves you biblically.

The one whose love lifts its head to you despite its broken neck.

Whose body bursts sixteen arms electric to carry you,

gentle, the way

old grief is gentle. Love the love that is messy in all its too much,

the body that rides best your body, whose mouth saddles

the naked salt of your far gone hips,

whose tongue translates the rock

language of

all your elegant scars.

Go with the one who cries out for his tragic sisters as he

chops the winter’s wood, the one whose skin

triggers your heart into a heaven of blood waltzes.

I came across Rachel McKibbens back in April, while participating in the National Poetry Month poem-a-day challenge — she was posting enormously helpful prompts on her blog for every day of the month. The “ex-punk rock chola” has serious spoken word credentials: she was 2009 Women of the World Slam champion, an eight-time National Poetry Slam team member, and a three time NPS finalist. McKibbens is a versatile poet; her dark, spare, and brutally beautiful work is as visceral on the page as it is at the mic, delivered in her distinct, ragged voice. I think that her insights on both “page poetry” and slam poetry are telling. Of spoken word, she says, “[I]t certainly taught me a lot about cadence, rhythm and sound. I’ve been a syllable counter since the day I understood words. Sonics are extremely important to me. And timing. I don’t think you can really learn these things in their entirety unless it’s on a microphone. Reading it aloud to yourself in your home is not the same as knowing how to honor your poem by reading it to an audience properly. Many page poets don’t read their poems correctly. I’ve heard brilliant pieces of writing fall flat because the reader didn’t learn the poem’s voice.” However, she also notes, “I have never played to win… I have only ever played to change the game,” and insists “in slams, I approach a poem exactly as I do at readings. I stand at the mic, and I read my poem. That’s it.”

Rachel McKibbens is acclaimed in both spoken word and “book poet” circles because in her work, the muscle of the language is apparent regardless of what form it takes. While it makes sense to sometimes assess performed and written poetry differently, I think that it’s important to remember that cliques not withstanding, it’s all poetry. I am interested in poetry, period, and at the end of the day I don’t care whether it’s written or spoken just as long as splits my head open.

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