UPDATED: April 3, 2013, at 5:47 p.m.
Spoken word poetry is a medium with the potential to be thrilling and powerful. The artistic freedom it gives poets was evident in the sheer range of performances at the Harvard Speak Out Loud showcase on Saturday. The event was a presentation of pieces that Harvard students will perform at the Collegiate Unions Poetry Slam Invitational this weekend. The competitors, who will attend the upcoming competition held at Barnard College, are Misha Garrison-Desany ‘16, Melanie Wang ‘15, Bex Kwan ‘14, Jamie Banks ‘13, and Cassandra E. Euphrat Weston ’14.
Speak Out Loud is a student-run organization founded in 2011 by Euphrat Weston ’14 and Kyra A. Atekwana ’14, who were struck by the absence of a spoken word organization on campus when they arrived at Harvard in 2010. “The first Wintersession where the UC offered funding, that happened to be in our first year [in existence], so we said we can pull together a spoken word workshop without us having very much experience. We were pretty nervous about it but it went really well, and the response was so overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic that we thought we can found a student group and we did," Euphrat Weston says.
The club now offers an entry into spoken word for those who have never participated in, or even witnessed, the experience of “spitting” spoken word poetry. The evening began with an open-mic where any member of the audience was encouraged to stand up and perform their own work. There were several original performances from artists who go to school in the area, including a group piece from the team at the Berklee School of Music. Inclusivity is a very important part of the spoken word phenomenon at Harvard; In that spirit, SOL sponsors weekly poetry workshops open for all to attend. “It's grown tremendously,” Euphrat Weston says of the club. “We really focus on community...so many amazing people have put in so much work to make this community what it is in just two years, which is amazing to reflect back on.”
The beauty of spoken word poetry comes from its power to add dimensions to the poems. The words—one could almost say lyrics—serve as a skeleton for the poet’s expression. The artists use song, action, audience participation, and even dance to add depth to their pieces. This results in a tremendous range of different performances, ranging from rap to near-skits. Part of what gives the poetry so much force is the sheer level of emotion that can be introduced by varying the tone of voice alone.
The members of the SOL team and visiting speakers took a highly theatrical approach and blended truth and artifice in their words. “Spoken word is powerful but very, very dangerous,” said Kwan in one of the pieces, alluding to the fine line between truth and fiction in the works.
An interesting feature of showcase was the highly personal subject matter of many of the poems. It is by no means uncommon for poets to write about their feelings and experiences, and throughout the event, poets explored gender, sexuality, class, race, family relationships and love in piercing detail. They were able to appeal even to those in the audience who had no such experiences, as was evidenced by an enthusiastic audience reaction. “[Slam poetry is about] getting to that raw human honesty,” SOL team coach Jason H. Simon-Bierenbaum says.
Members of the Harvard SOL team who are going to CUPSI spoke about having three categories of poems they will be performing—“queer” poems, letters addressing someone or something, and poems in which the speaker adopts a persona. One such poem was about Euphrat Weston’s imaginary “butt-alien” friend as a child. In another performance, Kwan and Euphrat Weston performed a duet poem in which Kwan described Euphrat Weston, while she was standing mutely on stage, which took on an entirely new dimension as they circled each other and spoke to one another while avoiding eye contact. This interaction brought a sense of complexity to the work.
Audience participation—snapping, humming, and vocal acknowledgement—was a prominent feature of the showcase. Not only did it enhance the layering of the performances, but also it created a connectedness between performers and the audience, and even among the audience members themselves. At several points in the night, the entire room began humming in approbation of a particularly moving line, encouragement growing as each poem reached its climax. No matter how foreign some of the situations described may have seemed, the undercurrent of community and common feeling was made even stronger by the call-and-response between the audience and the performer.
Despite being such a young organization, Harvard SOL seems to have already inspired a devoted and enthusiastic following, and appears likely to maintain a significant presence at Harvard. As evidenced by the avid vocalizations of the audience members and their apparent zeal for the performances, it is apparent that the early years of spoken word at Harvard are already successful ones.
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