Saturday, December 1, 2012

The empowering yet fragile nature of spoken word poetry

On Thursday, we organized a poetry reading in Lovejoy Library in celebration of Eugene B. Redmond's upcoming 75th birthday. After the gathering, folks continually approached me telling me how "powerful," "dynamic," and "amazing," they felt that the readings by our program coordinators Danielle Hall and Cindy Lyles were. I agree: the sisters are incredibly impressive performers of verse.

Prior to arriving to our program over a year ago, they had both already become experienced spoken word artists at their undergrad institutions and then on the St. Louis poetry scenes. Among other attributes, their poems and styles of delivery are filled with the signature aspects of empowerment or cultural strength that characterize so much of spoken word poetry. When Danielle and Cindy read, you hear multiple African American verbal and performance traditions--sermonic, consciousness raising, militancy, and emphatic testifying.

Despite all the exuberance of spoken word poetry in the moment of an event, the art form has a necessarily fleeting and thus fragile quality. Unlike printed volumes of poetry that readers might take home, re-read, put on their bookshelves, and then re-read again, most audiences must carry even the most powerful spoken word pieces and the atmospheres of the gatherings in their memories, which are often imperfect.

Further, the university has no formal courses on spoken word performance. For better and worse, the genre has not been institutionalized like "literary" poetry. Artists like Danielle and Cindy acquire and develop their performance skills in informal, non-classroom spaces. 

The audience of about 75 people were moved by the powerful, dynamic, and amazing displays of spoken word poetry on Thursday by Cindy, Danielle, as well as the other presenters Susan "Spitfire" Lively and Vince Manuel." Someone was recording the event, and folks took photographs. Still, we'll struggle to adequately retain and pass on the empowering nature of the performances that we witnessed.              

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