Performance poetry speaks to the A2 community

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BY CARLY STEINBERGER
Daily Arts Writer
Published October 20, 2010

A microphone always helps get your message to the masses. But in the right hands, a microphone sends a personal and passionate message about life, society and struggle — a message that, while expressed fine in writing, truly comes alive in vocal performance. And in Ann Arbor, the right hands grasp the mic at U-club's bi-weekly performances.

During the open mic portion of the Oct. 7 show, a young man took the stage, ukulele in hand, and proceeded to play part of the song “5 Years Time” by the band Noah and the Whale. Another delivered a poem about perseverance. One more read a poem praising her roommate.

Anyone can take the stage during the open mic segment of the show. They can read whatever they want — something they’ve been working on for months or something they completed in five minutes. The pieces don’t necessarily have to be poetry, and often they're not.

The poets who competed in the poetry slam following the open mic employed several different delivery styles: Some spoke rapidly and passionately, while others favored a somber tone. Five judges — volunteers from the audience — were provided with white boards to rank the performers on a scale of one to 10.

One competitor solemnly performed a poem about rape. Another shared a poem about being high, which he performed animatedly, walking around the stage, throwing out hand gestures and fluctuating the volume of his voice. The winner of the slam presented a clever poem about the race and class dynamics of being robbed as a white man in Detroit, which he speedily yet emphatically performed.

After each slam ends, the featured poet takes the stage and presents the audience with a sampling of his or her work.

Oct. 7's featured poet goes by the stage name Versiz, though his real name is Jamaal May. He gave a powerful performance, putting a creative, poetic spin on tough topics like war. Still, harsher themes can be performed alongside optimism.

“A lot of times I try to perform encouraging poems,” May said. “You know, poems about possibilities. They are to some extent optimistic but not in a hokey false way.”

One of May’s chief goals is to "bring poetry to the people." A published poet, May has been asked to perform at locations like Notre Dame, Indiana University and, of course, at U-club.

While the Oct. 7 U-club featured vastly different performers, one theme pervaded all of their of work: self-expression. It was clear most of the performers wrote about personal experiences or greater societal ideas that sparked their passions. U-club simply provided the venue.

“It’s a really laid back atmosphere in which anyone can participate,” said LSA junior Angela Crumdy, U-club’s vice president. “And it’s just a good place if you want to grow as a poet.”

Crumdy talked about some of the other events the organization makes happen. In early February, for example, U-club holds the “Penis Monologues” — a show consisting of penis-themed group pieces and monologues performed by men. And the club has started a slam in conjunction with the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity for Black History Month.

At the end of every slam season, U-club also hosts a Grand Slam, in which all the winners of the bi-weekly slams participate. The top five scorers comprise the University of Michigan team that will be sent to the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, colloquially known as College Nationals. This year CUPSI will be held in Ann Arbor; last year’s location was Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts.

Amariah Stepter is U-club’s president. A fifth-year LSA senior, Stepter has been involved with U-club since she was a freshman.

“Performance poetry allows you to relate more and connect to the poem,” Stepter said, “And instead of reading it with my own voice and my own cadence I am visualizing what (the author) experienced, versus putting myself in their shoes.”

Crumdy generally prefers performance poetry to written poems, but not always.

“For performance poetry, there’s a really big theater aspect and you have to be able to use your voice as a tool and your body as tool,” Crumdy said. “On paper you have to do all of those things and not be present.”

Aside from organizing U-club events and watching them unfold, Crumdy and Stepter are both poets themselves.

“I would call myself a poet who sometimes performs,” Crumdy said. “I write every day — I have a journal, but it’s not necessarily poetry. If there’s certain things I find inspiring I’ll write them down.”

Crumdy also talked a bit about recurring subjects in her poems. She said many of her poems deal with social justice, but that most of her poems are just about her life.

“It’s a way for me to process where I come from or things about my family or things that happen on campus,” she said.

Stepter shared similar thoughts about her own work.

“I turn daily events into a poem,” she said. “They don’t have a consistent theme. They’re just about things I’ve been through and my relationships with other people.”

For Crumdy and Stepter, just like at the slam, it’s about start-to-finish self-expression; from conception to writing to the stage, the poets' work truly comes from themselves.

While the U-club slams take place on campus, there are several other groups operating around the Ann Arbor area that specialize in the spoken word. One of these groups is Wordworks, which began in 2002.

“We are a group of people that are absolutely in love with words and what putting them together can mean for ourselves and the people in our community,” said Maggie Hanks, a Wordworks member studying education at Eastern Michigan University.

Wordworks puts on a variety of events around town, though none are poetry slams. Rather, they focus on exposing the public to the spoken word.

On the first and third Wednesday of every month, Wordworks holds LooseLeaf Writings from 6 to 9 p.m. at Ann Arbor’s TeaHaus. An established poet leads a free workshop for college-aged and adult writers of any level. The second Tuesday of every month, Wordworks holds LooseLeaf Readings from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. An open mic follows the featured poets reading at these events.

Hanks elaborated on the other events Wordworks puts on, including readings at the Kerrytown Book Festival and the local teen center Neutral Zone, along with their annual show "Homegrown," performed every January at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater.

“That one’s really cool because it’s sort of a large-scale production that incorporates music and ensemble pieces as well as just individual poetry,” Hanks said. Homegrown features the small group of Wordworks members exclusively.

For Hanks, all poetry is performance poetry.

“Roger Bonair-Agard (a poet from Trinidad and Tobago) said that reading poetry is an inherently auditory experience,” Hanks said, “because even when you’re reading to yourself from the page the way that we process words is … you feel it and you hear it even if its only in your head. So there is no poem that cannot be a performance poem.”

This is not a universal belief among poets. Mike Kulik, a junior at Wayne State University and a Wordworks member, offered some of his thoughts about performance and written poetry.

“The difference is the artistic element. I think spoken word has an easier way of conveying voice than written word,” Kulick said. “Personally, I like the written aspect more. If someone can read my poetry in New York City and paint a picture of Main Street, Ann Arbor, you know because it’s written so well.”

Many Wordworks members began their involvement with performance poetry at the Neutral Zone, a youth activities center on Washington St. in Ann Arbor which hosts weekly poetry gatherings under Creative Arts Director Jeff Kass. The organization is also responsible for Poetry Night in Ann Arbor, which will occur on Nov. 4 and feature renowned poets Martin Espada and Samantha Thornhill.

Kass, an English teacher at Pioneer High School, strives to inspire young people to get involved with performance poetry with the Neutral Zone's weekly readings.

“I think that young people don’t generally get enough credit for being as interesting and imaginative as they are,” Kass said. To him, poetry slams and performance poetry provide an outlet for kids to show the world what they think and what they can do.

For Kass’s students, performance poetry gives them a chance to build writing skills and gain confidence. The U-club and Wordworks bring the spoken word to the University and the broader Ann Arbor community. But for all involved, performance poetry is a learning experience that’s inherently tied not just to reading the written word, but to listening to what’s spoken.