Alyssa Knowling is an undergraduate writer at Webster University. She is a poet and visual artist out of St. Louis, and agreed to talk with us about her poem, “Today, It’s Warhol,” available in the Winter 2016 issue of the OAR.
What was behind your choice to invoke Andy Warhol in your poem? How do you feel this shaped the poem?
I originally started my college career as an Art History major before moving to the dark side of Literature. However, I have always maintained a massive interest in visual arts, and have continued my obsession in my writing. Andy Warhol is an exceptionally interesting figure in the public realm, let alone in the art world, and I have frequently thought about how well he would fit into contemporary culture. That persisting thought eventually led to a series of poems about him, one of them being “Today, It’s Warhol.”
What did you set out to do with “Today, It’s Warhol”? What did you want to accomplish?
The intent of this poem, and much of my writing, is to get people to think about the arts holistically. There are many, many mediums to work with, whether that be painting, writing, performance art—you name it, but I firmly believe that at their foundations, they are all interconnected. I think that if artists and viewers of art take time to consider this notion, we could all learn much more from one another.
What do you like about poetry vs other genres?
Poetry, as opposed to any other genre I have worked with, gives me the ability to focus intensely on the minute. I can spend an entire poem exploring a single instance, one thought, a word. I don’t have to create a story around whatever I’m writing to give it validity. There is a lot of power to be found in what may initially seem like a minor detail.
Which poets/books of poetry would you recommend for someone looking to get into the genre?
There are many, many poets worth reading, but I obviously have my near and dears. I love Rilke for his majesty, David Kirby for his wild humor, and Frank O’Hara for being a kindred soul. But truly, I recommend that anyone interested in poetry should read anything they can get their hands on.
How do you approach a new poem?
Regardless of how often I consider larger topics on my own time, it is always something small that sparks a living poem. This could be a fragment of a memory, a happening I witness, an image, a single word. From there, I try to think as little as possible and write, write, write.
So far, what is the best piece of writing advice you’ve gotten as an undergrad?
My wonderful poetry professor and friend David Clewell has continuously told me that any poem I write is an “Alyssa poem.” I have worried over and over again that a new piece I’m working on isn’t in my style or that it’s too different from anything else I’ve written, but really, if I’m working with no ulterior motive, it’s going to fit. It’s going to make sense. Don’t let your conception of who you are or what you should write deter you from pursuing something that interests you.
The Winter 2016 issue of The Oakland Arts Review is here!
We would like to thank everyone involved, including all of the creative undergraduate students from across the globe who submitted their work, and the very hardworking
undergraduates who were part of bringing the journal together. The OAR would not have been possible without you.
To celebrate, we are hosting a launch party tonight from 5-7pm in Gold Room A of the Oakland Center. The launch will feature readings from some of our contributors, and a chance for everyone to win a copy of the journal in a raffle.
If you would like to be part of the exciting work we’ve been doing, you can submit your work to us here. We are officially accepting and reading submissions for our second issue.
Brianna Vanderveen is one of OU’s many talented undergraduate writers and poets. She recently placed third in OU’s poetry slam. Brianna has agreed to share her experiences with slam poetry, her motivations, and what inspires her.
– Sharnita Sanders
Sharnita Sanders: When it comes to poetry, what is your creative process?
Brianna Vanderveen: My creative process is kind of difficult. I actually hate it sometimes. I used to think I was just your average run of the mill procrastinator, but I’ve come to think it’s honestly just the way my mind works. My greatest inspiration comes to me less than 24 hours before I’m supposed to have a piece completed. All my close friends and family know that if they watch me perform at a slam or just in general, chances are I was up at 4 that morning writing it. That’s how it’s been since I started writing poetry seriously 4 years ago. I’ll spend about 2 days before I’m supposed to perform freaking out thinking “There’s no way I can get this done in time. What am I gonna do?” And then with about 4-12 hours left, it’ll hit me like a brick wall. Every time.
Sharnita Sanders: Who are some of your favorite poets? How have they inspired you?
Brianna Vanderveen: My favorite poet on the scene is Sierra Demulder. Her poem “Mrs. Dahmer” was the first pro slam I ever saw, and I immediately fell in love. The way she handles language and perspective is mesmerizing. I saw her perform at GVSU last year and got to meet her. It was incredible. I’m also pretty inspired by classic poetry, lots of Langston Hughes.
SS: Do you only write poetry or do you explore other genres?
BV: Right now it’s pretty much just poetry, though I’d like to expand that eventually. I don’t think I’ll ever be like a fiction novelist, but I do have a few essays I’d love to get published someday. Maybe a short story, and I want to write my memoirs. But mostly poetry.
SS: In one of your poems you dedicated it to your younger sister. What are some other elements that inspire your poetry?
BV: I’m a firm believer in writing what you know. Everyone has an incredible experience or thought to contribute, so I get a lot of inspiration from my own life and my family, especially the way those experiences relate to different events and social issues. My faith is a big inspiration as well. Especially in a time where church and politics and Christianity seem to be such a twisted concept. I like to use my writing to find truth again.
SS: You seemed completely in your element when on stage, was this your first poetry slam?
BV: This was not my first slam, but I actually haven’t done that many. In my entire life I want to say I’ve performed eight times. But I do have an extensive background in theatre and music so the stage is nothing new. I will say that, out of everything, I think slam poetry is my favorite type of performance that I do.
SS: How did you prepare for the slam, and do you use the same process every time you perform?
BV: I mentioned earlier, but I prepared by not preparing at all until the last minute. It’s pretty much like that every single time. Sometimes I wonder what would happen to my poetry if I started working weeks in advance, but then I wonder if it would even sound like me.
SS: Although this isn’t your first time performing your poetry in front of an audience, do you still get nervous sharing your work?
BV: I do! Not uncontrollably nervous, but it really is like bearing a piece of your soul on stage. Depending on the depth of the subject you’ve written on, a poor reception could feel like anything between “they don’t like my writing style” to “they don’t like me as a person”. The slam community is very open and loving though, so I personally have never actually experienced that.
SS: You placed third. How did it feel to be in the top three? Have you ever won a competition?
BV: It felt incredible! Though I’ve competed before, that was the first time I’ve placed in a slam that is truly a slam-style competition. It felt like someone had told me “yes, this is exactly where you’re supposed to be. You’re on the right track. Don’t stop this.” I’ve actually written a lot more since the slam than I normally do.
I would say though that placing isn’t necessarily as important as it is in a sport or something. There’s no universal scoring guide for slam poetry, so it’s kind of totally up to whatever the judges like that day to an extent. That might seem unfair at first, but it really does create an environment where the poetry is what counts, not the scores.
SS: What was your favorite moment of the slam?
BV: That’s difficult to answer. My favorite part is always every single time a poem is being performed. And that’s not just a feel-good answer, it’s the truth. There is nothing quite like getting to watch a person trust a room full of strangers (spoiler: they don’t leave as strangers) with their poem.
SS: What advice would you give to someone who’s just getting into spoken word poetry?
BV: Write. Write everything. Be fearless to the point of lunacy in performing. Perform alongside people who have done it for years, weeks, minutes, whatever. You’ve found a community that LOVES “noobs” like no other does, we’re all so excited you’re here so take advantage of that and perform even while you’re still trying to figure things out! Don’t let anyone place restrictions on your poetry. Even if it’s something you might not perform for a while or even ever, don’t let anyone rule what is in your notebook. That’s the beautiful thing about writing; ownership. Everything you say is yours. Even if everything else gets taken from you, the words you’ve put in the world can’t be.
Every writer experiences this moment: you fire up your laptop, pull up a blank word document, finger tips hovering expectantly over the keys, and out comes… nothing. Where your thoughts should be dancing across the screen in a composed ballet of letters, instead they remain desolate and barren. It’s as if your muse has suddenly decided to encase your literary feet in a brick wall, keeping you from moving forward. You demand that it unleash you this instant and it replies only by sticking out its tongue in defiance. Welcome to writer’s block.
It may seem to strike without any real cause, as if the universe has irrevocably decided to take away your skills, but writer’s block stems from discernible places. Perhaps you’ve been writing about the same things lately and can’t find a new way to make that love story pop off the page. Maybe you haven’t been thinking about your ideas as much as you used to. And just maybe, you’ve found yourself bored with the idea of sitting at a desk tapping away about things you self-deprecatingly think no one will ever give a second thought. Whatever the case may be, you’ve entered the winter of your writing experience: every which way you look greets you with only empty spaces and monotone landscapes. But just like our living calendar, winter must inevitably leave to allow the coming of spring, inviting new exciting prospects and vivacious beginnings. Here are some tips to spur on your creative season:
Every writer reads.
Here’s something that’s probably obvious: anyone who knows how to write also knows how to read. It’s through reading literature that writers typically realize their passion, and therefore, only makes sense that books would be the place to turn to when you’re in dire need of reinvigorating. It may seem counterproductive at first, but this technique has its advantages. Reading not only helps you remember what it was about literature that made you so excited, but also helps you to remember what a book looks like. Through exploring the pages of a book from the reader side rather than the writer side, you relearn what makes a plot engaging, what makes characters unique yet relatable, and how to keep the readers on their toes. Rereading your old favorites is a good start, but picking up new releases allows you the experience of a new adventure, and the possibility of discovering new writing tricks you’ve never encountered before.
Introduce a ‘plot bunny.’
What exactly is a plot bunny? Well unlike a real bunny, the only thing this energetic little thing will multiply, is your ideas. A plot bunny is a plot device that you plop into the current scene you’re working on with hopes that it will incite some type of revelation. It can be something like, “have one of your characters run into their old high school bully,” or something as simple as working in a word or phrase. They can be serious or absolutely ridiculous, but the goal is to encourage a new route. When writing, you can often get bogged down by the initial places you wanted to take your characters, and be against allowing them to go in any other direction. Writers reach a narrow alley that their character refuses to go down, and as hard as the author pushes them, the character’s actions reflect all the force and reluctance in the prose. Instead, lead your character to a four-way intersection brimming with choices and allow them to show you who they are rather than you showing them. Even if what you write with your plot bunny can’t fit into your larger story, you’ll learn something new about your characters that can help you to reshape your plot down the line.
Pretend there is no book but the world.
The writer’s natural habitat has always been indoors, shut away in a room, possibly with a furry companion, drinking their preferred hot beverage, and hunching over a bright computer screen for hours upon hours. And sure, we’ve all been there, but before we were writers endeavoring to churn out genius at all costs of sanity and social life, we were humans. And we are still humans, who like anyone else, are hungry for a new story, a new experience. One of the best ways to get that, besides reading a book, is to actually go out and experience it for yourself. The saying “write what you know” is tried and true, so if you don’t plan on only writing books about authors tirelessly working on manuscripts in the dead of night, I’d suggest going out and living. It can be as big as travelling overseas, hitting up beaches and forests, conversing with foreigners and diving off of cliffs, or as small as taking a walk along the lake, going out with friends to the city, or flying solo as you explore a new part of town. The world is full of new places, new people, new depths of emotion and imagination that you, and nobody else, have ever encountered. In those adventures, you find the things that will give you a story no one but yourself can tell. Just be sure to bring a notebook and pen.
These are just a few things I do when I find myself frozen before my writing projects. With these, and determination, I’ve found a way to reignite my passion and begin again. I hope you’ll find something in these techniques that helps your creativity blossom.
Eva Hill is an undergraduate writer and poet at Oakland University who recently participated in the OU poetry slam. She has been writing and performing poetry since she was in high school, and agreed to talk about her inspirations, motivations, and her experience performing slam poetry.
Sharnita Sanders: What first drew you to poetry?
Eva Hill: My sophomore year of high school, I studied at the main library in Detroit. One of the librarians told me that the table I was sitting at was to be used for City Wide Poets. She explained to me that it was a program from Inside Out that taught high school students poetry. Afterwards she asked if I would be interested. I said yes as I thought it was a good way with losing my great grandmother a couple months before.
Sharnita Sanders: Do you limit yourself to just poetry or do you dabble in fiction writing? How do you separate the two genres?
Eva Hill: In the beginning I just focused on poetry and barely dabbled in fiction until I came to Oakland. I separate poetry by understanding that it creates an environment (tell) where fiction goes on to explore the environment (show). At times it is hard not to blend the two.
SS: What triggers inspiration for your poetry?
EH: The trigger used to be from pain and hurt. Then it transitioned to an Alice In Wonderland type of poetry. Now it is being able to get in someone else’s mindset or shoes and bringing what they have to say into existence.
SS: What poets (modern or historical) have the most influence on your work?
EH: Maya Angelo, Emily Dickenson, Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes and upcoming poets in Oakland and Detroit.
SS: What is it about poetry that you love most?
EH: I love the freedom it gives me when writing about something new.
SS: The Poetry Slam that was held at OU last week was awesome! Was that your first time preforming spoken word poetry? Or reading your work aloud to such a large crowd?
EH: The first time I performed spoken word was City Wide Poets first Scratch The Page during my sophomore year of high school.
SS: What was your favorite moment of the slam?
EH: Hearing the other poet’s pieces and seeing the reaction of the crowd and how many people enjoyed poetry.
SS: When you’re an artist in the field of something as provocative as spoken word poetry, you never really know how people will respond to what you have to say. Even though seemed totally in your element, were you nervous reading your work aloud?
EH: Yes! I was a nervous ball of energy. I couldn’t figure out how to keep the audience’s attention and speak loud enough. I’m naturally a low speaker. That is aside from speaking too fast and wondering if it would hit a nerve with anyone in the audience.
SS: How did you prepare and what were the inspiration for the topics of your poems?
EH: I attended a workshop by Justin Rogers where we performed our pieces by tossing a paper ball and picking up where we left off when it was our turn. What inspired the topics in my poem were some of the issues that were portrayed in media and the controversy caused by it.
SS: What advice do you have for those who want to write poetry or don’t feel like they wouldn’t be good at writing poetry?
EH: You’re going to love certain pieces and then absolutely hate some of them. Don’t throw them away, leave them alone for a while (days, months or years) then go back and see how you can rework it. Going to open mics and writing prompts are good ways to write poetry. Try swapping pieces with another poet. Remember, poetry is the language of your imagination.
One of the most amazing things the Internet grants people is the opportunity to show their work to an extremely wide audience. The Internet is a way for people to explore and share their ideas and imaginations, which especially benefits aspiring comic artists. I absolutely love webcomics, because they are all so diverse and imaginative, and explore so many different themes and ideas. Because I love webcomics and I love gushing and talking about them, here is a list of some of the ones I absolutely love in no discerning order, and with the links to the comics:
O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti: Alastair Sterling, an inventor and robotics genius that sparked the robot revolution, died suddenly before seeing his work become the cornerstone of everyday life. He is brought back to life sixteen years later as a robot, and he tracks down his former partner in order to find out who brought him back to life and why.
As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman: Charlie is a queer girl of color stuck in a Christian youth camp. She and a group of other queer girls go on a hiking trip up a mountain that the camp requires the girls to do.
All Nightby Britt Sabo: Clarence is a caster, someone with the ability to use magic to fight against creatures of darkness. Literally. The world Clarence lives in is permanently divided by night and day. The seasons never change, nothing ever changes. But the dark creatures are growing more aggressive and trying harder and harder to invade the world of light, and no one knows how to stop them.
Shoot Around by Suspu: When the zombie apocalypse happens, a coach of a girl’s high school basketball team tries to help and protect the girls he’s in charge of. However, the girls end up being much more capable of survival than him, and they help the coach learn how to survive.
The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal by E.K. Weaver: In the course of a single day, Amal calls off his arranged marriage, comes out to his parents, gets disowned, and gets drunk at a bar. He wakes up the next morning to find TJ, a dreadlocked vagabond, cooking eggs in his kitchen. TJ tells Amal that they made an arrangement last night to go on a road trip together to see Amal’s sister graduate from college. Amal, having nothing left, decides to go on the road trip with TJ.
Prague Raceby Leppu: Three friends live in a town that is becoming rife with mysterious and gruesome murders. After one of them purchases an odd poster from a creepy shop, even stranger things begin to happen to them, and their lives continue to spiral out of control.
Vattuby Evan Dahm: Taking place in an alternate fantasy world, a young girl named Vattu is born to a tribe of nomadic flute players. The world that she and everyone in her tribe knew is changed suddenly by an emperor conquering all the lands and people in his wake. Vattu is caught in the middle of the clash of cultures and wills.
Rock and Riot by Chelsey Furedi: Two high school gangs, one of only boys and one of only girls, clash continuously in the 1950’s. Will they set aside their differences to fight for what they have in common?
Hotblood! by Toril Orlesky: The year is 1871 in the United States. James Rook is a Civil War veteran that is desolate and without a job after the war. He’s also a centaur. He gets hired as a secretary by Asa Langley, a steel tycoon that is nowhere near being above criminal activity.
The Meekby Der-shing Helmer: Angora is an inexperienced girl that has been sent by her grandfather on a quest to save the world. She is in the middle of a war between two countries. While she has nothing but her instincts and her mysterious powers, Angora gets to witness humanity, and judge for herself if the world is truly worth saving.
I sincerely hope you all enjoy these recommendations! I love these stories. I find them unique and fascinating, and I hope the rest of you see what I see in them.
With the extreme popularity of superhero movies, more and more people want to try to get into comics themselves. While I will give a list of my recommendations, the best way to start getting into superhero comics is:
Watch a superhero movie or TV show
Pick a character from said movie or TV show that interests you
Go to your local comics shop and ask one of the workers where they would recommend starting with said character
Get that issue and enjoy
If there are no comic book stores near you, you can search online for recommendations of where to start. This is the best possible method for getting into superhero comics, however I do come with my own recommendations, and I give them to you here with no ranking order: The Runaways (Marvel Comics): The Runaways is a series about a group of teenagers who discover that their parents are supervillains and decide to team up and stop them. After this initial story arc, they became a legitimate superhero team.
The Wicked and the Divine (Image Comics): The series’ main character is Laura, a fan of The Pantheon, a group of pop stars that have taken the world by storm. She meets them in person and finds out they’re all the reincarnations of gods, and that she might also be the reincarnation of a god.
The Young Avengers (Marvel Comics): This comic series is about a group of teenagers that adopt the personas of the Avengers and form their own Avengers team. I would strongly suggest starting with the first twelve issues created by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, as well as the issues made by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.
Hellboy (Dark Horse Comics): Hellboy is a demon who was summoned from Hell as an infant by Nazi occultists during World War Two, and was rescued by the allied forces. He was raised on an Air Force base by Trevor Bruttenholm, a scientist that later formed a sector of the U.S. government to fight supernatural and occult threats. Hellboy now fights against the supernatural and the occult in an effort to protect people. TheHellboy series has gone on for over fifteen years, so I will list five books that I feel help give a great sense of his character: Seed of Destruction, Wake the Devil, The Chained Coffin and Others, The Right Hand of Doom, and The Troll Witch and Others. After reading these, I would strongly suggest to attempt to read the whole saga of Hellboy, since there’s an overarching storyline.
Swamp Thing (DC Comics): Swamp Thing is about a superhero named Swamp Thing, a plant monster that absorbed the memories of a man that fell into his swamp. The Swamp Thing series has been going since the 70’s, so here are a list of comics that I feel are good starting points to get into Swamp Thing: Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1, Roots of the Swamp Thing, Raise Them Bones, Regenesis, and Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 4. Also try to read anything in this series written by Alan Moore.
Manga: If you have never heard of manga before, they are Japanese comics, which you can find them online, or in your local bookstore. They are a lot more accessible, in my experience, than American comics, so they’re fairly easy to get into. Most of them also don’t have the problem of having hundreds upon thousands of issues for a series. There are tons of them though, so here are some of my recommendations for manga:
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa: Fullmetal Alchemist is a series about two brothers, Edward and Alphonse, that are on a journey to restore their bodies, which they sacrificed in an effort to bring their mother back to life.
Mushishi by Yuki Urushibara: This series follows the life of Ginko, a man with the ability to see invisible beings called “mushi”. He travels all over Japan to study mushi and to help people that are affected or harmed by the mushi.
Sakamichi no Apollon by Yuki Kodama: Sakamichi no Apollon takes place in 1966 Japan, and it’s about a high school student named Kaoru Nishimi, who moves to the country to live with his aunt. He meets Sentaro Kawabuchi, a boy in his class with the reputation of being a thug and a delinquent. The two begin to find even footing when they discover that they both enjoy music, and Sentaro gets Kaoru into jazz music.
Dorohedoro by Q Hayashida: Dorohedoro is a story that takes place between two different worlds: The Magic User’s World, where people born with magic smoke live, and The Hole, an extremely dismal world where humans live. The main character is Kaiman, a man with the head of a lizard and amnesia. He is hunting for the magic user that turned him into a lizard with the help of his friend Nikaido, and they soon discover that the answers Kaiman seeks are a lot more complicated than they thought.
Berserk by Kentaro Miura: The main character is a man named Gatts, also known as The Black Swordsman. Gatts travels the world, fighting the demons that never stop chasing him in order to become strong enough to get his revenge against the man that made him cursed.
Well, those are my recommendations for American comics and manga. I hope everyone reading enjoys them. Check back for part 2 of the comic series in which I recommend webcomics. Have a great day!
Recently I was able to see spoken word duo Speak Like a Girl perform as part of an open mic on campus. For the uninitiated, spoken word, also referred to as slam poetry, is poetry intended to be performed aloud. For me, the appeal of spoken word is the array of diverse voices. Most of the poets I listen to are women, writing about their experiences with harassment, homophobia, and body shaming. Speak Like a Girl’s Olivia Gatwood and Megan Falley both fall into that niche, and together they work to bring education and activism to college campuses through their poetry.
Falley is the author of two full length collections of poetry and a chapbook of poems about Lana Del Rey entitled Bad Girls, Honey. Olivia Gatwood is the author of the chapbook Drunk Sugar, writer for Bustle and HelloFlo, and she and Falley are both National Poetry Slam finalists. They’re both educators, as well: Gatwood teaches workshops on feminism, poetry, and sexual health, Falley created on online writing course called Poems That Don’t Suck.
I was introduced to Megan Falley by my best friend, whose favorite poem is Falley’s “Fat Girl”. (At their show she introduced it by reading a YouTube comment where she’s called a hippo and defiantly ate a cream puff – the cream puffs were amazing.) My favorite poem of the night would have to be their “Collapse the Economy”, for the line “Oh you thought we were gonna stop at burning bras? Well then you shouldn’t have given us so much flammable shit”.
I had watched YouTube videos of their poems before going to the show, but they were nothing compared to seeing them in person. Falley and Gatwood channel so much rage in “Princess Peach Speaks” I could easily picture them beating Mario bloody with a pink parasol. Maybe the most powerful moment of the night came from Falley’s solo poem, about an abusive ex she refers to as “El Diablo” because “it’s better than imagining him small and with a mother”. I had chills all through the piece, but toward the end of the poem when she finally names him I think I gasped out loud. Her performance reminded me of one of the reasons I love spoken word; because Falley is telling her own story on her own terms, taking full control. As she says in the final line, “it has always been my show”.
Although they were dealing with pretty heavy subject matter, in between poems Falley and Gatwood kept it light, joking around and sharing fun facts. The previously mentioned reading of YouTube comments was a riot. One commenter suggested that all the feminists are given their own country, which Falley and Gatwood immediately embraced as a fantastic idea. They were educating throughout the show too, taking time to poll their audience about their experience with street harassment (almost every hand went up), talking about the wage gap, and defining terms like “rape culture” and “gold star lesbian”. They closed their set on “Ode to the Selfie”, inviting everyone to take advantage of a selfie stick and some props outside, including signs with lines from their poems on them. Along the usual t-shirts and copies of their books, the merch table also had a stack of pamphlets with information about feminism, organizations they support, poets they recommend and contact information for sexual assault and domestic violence hotlines.
The thing I loved most about Speak Like a Girl was that I left feeling energized. The show could have easily been a depressing look at the status quo, but instead Gatwood and Falley have put together a program that tackles serious issues with enough humor and hope to inspire their audience. Every poem they performed carried the message that women can and should take control. I walked out (after taking a selfie, of course) feeling empowered, ready to dismantle the patriarchy and maybe write some poetry.
Alix Olson is an internationally recognized spoken world poet and activist. She has written and produced three spoken word CD’s, as well as multiple books of poetry. Alix was also involved in the DVD, “Left Lane,” which showcases her life on the road, touring and performing poetry. You can check out more from Alix at her website, http://www.alixolson.com.
As part of a National Poetry Month Celebration, Alix will be joining us at the OU Spoken Word Showcase tonight in Dodge Hall, room 201 4:30-7pm. Please stop by to see Alix, Detroit area spoken word artist Justin Rogers, and a handful of OU students preform their work. More info on this event here.
– Bethany Olson
Which artists or poems would you recommend for people looking to get into the genre?
I would recommend branching out, reading and listening to a range of poetry and music. Slam poetry came from and continues to be influenced by the (bridged) worlds of jazz, hip-hop, rap, folk music, formal poetry, speeches, plays and so on and so on. Too often we enter into a relationship with an art form that attracts us without learning its history- and I think that can limit our appreciation of and most definitely our contribution to that genre.
What is it you like about spoken word poetry vs. other genres?
The vulnerability it requires and the simultaneous intimacy and power it can invoke.
How did you first get into spoken word poetry? What made you decide to start writing and then performing?
After college, I moved to NYC in an effort to pursue acting and activism. I hadn’t really anticipated those as joint efforts but when I walked into the Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village, my life changed. The idea that I could be surrounded by people moved to change the world through art- and to allow their art to be infected and transformed by the political world- was intoxicating. I was on the 1998 Nuyorican “slam team” in 1998 and started touring shortly after. I modeled my touring life after the folk musicians around me—it took a lot of legwork to book tours in those days. I was fortunate to get gigs early on at slam venues and college/university Women’s Centers and even once at a Laundromat- and then eventually at music clubs and festivals. My first tour was a West Coast tour that I booked by phone and postcards and a little email. I travelled via greyhound bus and slept on living room floors. It was so great.
I noticed, unlike some spoken word artist, many of your performances involve music. What is behind this choice?
I think my poetry-music hybrid genre was due to a combination of factors. One, I was influenced by folksingers like the Indigo Girls, Dar Williams, Ani Difranco, Tracey Chapman) and the first “spoken word pieces” I wrote in college (like “Eve’s Mouth”) were actually folk songs. Sadly, I couldn’t really sing or play guitar very well so the hybrid that resulted was probably, in retrospect, sort of a productive failure! Two, as I began to write, perform and tour, I found myself surrounded by a community of singer-songwriters (Pamela Means, Chris Pureka, Ember Swift) that were always willing to jump in and play on my set. So, that piece was just an organic development. Finally, for me spoken word poetry is a live art form- so much of the vitality and intensity comes from the interaction with the audience. So, instruments offer the recorded version (which risks being dry without that live interaction) a little extra listening power, it wraps it in another layer of rhythm and sway.
Do you feel like slam poems need to have a political or social message behind them?
Well, I don’t think of politics as this particular range of topics like “gay rights” or “abortion access” or “who are you voting for” or whatever. I think all aspects of our lives have the potential to be politicized: to be articulated, highlighted, crafted in such a way that allows us to see the power relations embedded within whatever the thing is– and every poem has the power to do that. For me, that’s the “personal-political” combo power of a slam poem: exposing an underbelly, carving out the raw stakes, asking the audience to feel all of it together with you. Only then are we positioned to see things just a tiny bit differently moving forward- and perhaps then to change things. So, for me it’s not about a “message” per se, but about a (sometimes almost imperceptible) shift in vision. My favorite audience moments do that for me- it always makes me shiver. I look forward to lots of that at Oakland University next week!
What do you feel makes for a successful spoken word poem? A successful slam poetry event?
I think poems that seem to resonate with audiences take them on a mini-journey, have an element of linguistic surprise and play with old ideas in new unpredictable ways. Audre Lorde said: There are no new ideas, there are only new ways of making them felt. I’ve always taken that to heart. What a relief to remove your own internalized requirement to be brand-new, start from scratch. Indeed, you shouldn’t be, can’t be, what a limiting focus! Once that pressure is lifted, there’s room to experiment with all the problems and questions and bewilderments and beautiful troubles of the world that have continued to haunt and inspire.
What has been your favorite moment in performing spoken word?
From an activist perspective as far as a political “moment,” I think the very early 2000’s. George W. Bush was in office which was obviously crushingly painful but also a time of unlimited transformative rage and laughter; radical queer momentum was beginning to pick up and that was in the air everywhere I traveled- domestically and internationally; people were not yet subsumed by things like facebook and Amazon and youtube- and instead looked to physical gatherings in bookstores and music clubs and slam venues and festivals to build (temporary) spaces of radical community. I’m not anti-internet- I think it’s a really useful political tool– but it does seem to have altered our relationship to all kinds of relationships- if that makes sense. Performing internationally also fueled my soul during that time because I felt like could say: hey look, we are not all complicit with our government’s atrocities- we are not all the jingoistic patriots/parrots that was so often being communicated through our mainstream corporate media during that time. I hope we don’t need a Donald Trump presidency for that kind of vigorous activism to prevail.
Where do you look for inspiration for your writing?
Everywhere, books, newspapers, staring into space, but perhaps the most from conversations with people, or listening in on other peoples’ conversations (favorite pastime at coffee shops). I think poets are like spies, witnesses, journalists and creators all wrapped up into one slightly narcissistic/insecure package.
When I’m “uninspired,” it’s usually because I’ve allowed myself to get so worn into the mundane treads of daily living—or too much preoccupied by myself– that I’ve forgotten to look up and out.
What advice can you give for people looking to get into spoken word poetry?
Maybe I’ve made already overstated this idea, but my best advice is to not fall into the trap of only listening to spoken word poetry. Don’t allow your voice to get directly contoured by the contours of those before you. It began as a vibrant, permeable, anti-establishment art form and in my view it can only benefit from the risk of fresh approaches.
What is your favorite spoken word poem?
My newest is always my favorite to perform because it elicits that delicious awful anxiety of not-knowing-what’s-gonna-happen. As far as having a favorite among the big bad world of spoken word poems– I am damn grateful there’s really just no way to answer that question anymore!