On Monday Sept. 16, just 30 minutes after the dining hall shut down for the evening, Emerson Poetry Project occupied the space for its first open mic night and featured performance poet of the school year. The usual sounds of clinking silverware and the chatter of hungry students were replaced with those of starving artists and listeners alike, eager to hear the performance poems of the night.
Bobby Crawford, a senior writing, literature, and publishing major and self-described slam master of EPP, opened by inducing both laughs and snaps from the audience.
“We like to objectify for talent and looks,” he said. “Every time someone comes up to read, we all say: ‘You are pretty and smart!’”
EPP hosts events such as this one in an effort to create a safe environment for students to share their art, said Crawford. Along with weekly open mics, they host poetry slams, featured poets, and workshops for both writing and performance. Additionally, Crawford said he prides himself in the fact that last year, EPP won ‘Organization of the Year’ at Emerson for the 2012-2013 school year. EPP continually pushes its poets to excel in regional and national competitions like CUPSI, the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational.
“I started writing a poem already that I’m saving for the slam,” said freshman Aria Ellett, a writing, literature, and publishing major. “I want to make the CUPSI team.” Each time EPP hosts a slam, the declared winner of the night earns a spot in a final round of competition, which takes place at the end of the fall semester. Here, 13 to15 poets compete for five spots on the team. In the meantime, open mic nights allow students to practice and share.
For many freshmen, getting involved with EPP encourages them to expand their skills in performance poetry, according to Ellett.
“Last week at the meet up was the first time that I had performed poetry,” said Ellett. “The audience snapped for everything. I hadn’t done spoken word before, but after that I started to.”
Ellet said she appreciates the opportunity to listen to others perform because it allows the audience to learn more about the writer.
“It basically lets you into a stranger’s life,” she said. “They’re all very personal.”
Ali Reitzel, a freshman writing, literature, and publishing major, also attended the meet-up last week, and was inspired to come back and perform for the open mic night.
“I was struck by the talent and the passion. It was a religious experience,” she said.
Reitzel regarded her performance as both exhilarating and scary.
“When you get up there, it feels like you’re falling into your niche,” she said. “The crowd was awesome. They just get it. Poets get it.”
Ellett and Reitzel performed original pieces alongside returning sophomores, juniors, seniors, and the featured poet of the night, Janae Johnson.
Johnson is a two-time member of the Lizard Lounge slam team and an advisor of the slam team at Simmons College. She performed a series of pieces, captivating the audience with her delivery and animation. She made use of the entire space, ducking suddenly during certain poems as well as widening her eyes, using hand gestures, and pantomiming to emphasize her message.
“The best part of performing is interacting with the audience and seeing the words hit home,” said Johnson. Her poems touched on a range of topics, including love, violence, and equality. One piece, which depicted a woman who struck her as entitled, read ‘She walks as if she’s looking for the door, because she’s always got somewhere else to be.’ This line was followed by a smug look from Johnson and a chorus of snaps from the audience. According to several of Emerson’s performers, Johnson had a slew of similarly striking lines that resonated with them after the performance was over.
Johnson originally started slamming due to boredom, but after her performances were received well, she expanded her repertoire to include competing and teaching, she said. After listening to Emerson’s student poets on Tuesday night, she offered one piece of advice: “Never stop trying to improve. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, just have awareness of the community around you and know you can always improve.”
Amanda Canny, a sophomore writing, literature, and publishing major, said she appreciated Johnson’s ability to refrain from the “spoken word cliche” of growing progressively louder and then dropping to a subdued, meaningful line.
“She broke the usual pattern of tone that I’m always afraid of falling into,” said Canny. “I try to break that mold as well.”
Canny performed a piece about abusive relationships, using a male spectator to stand and act according to verbal cues throughout. She also implemented repetition into her poem, continually using the phrase “I asked again if he could touch me, and he said ‘Okay’,” physically and verbally demonstrating the dangers of such relationships.
“The audience’s energy becomes your energy. You can perform the same poem every night, but it can be different every time,” she said. “You change your tone and volume and, even if it’s repetitive, it relates differently to different people.”
She cringed with difficulty in trying to pick one line that struck her most throughout the night, finally deciding on one of Johnson’s: “When Janae said, ‘My ignorance is the most scary’, I was like, yes! I sometimes feel like I’m really sheltered and I just remember thinking ‘Yes, I am ignorant!’”
In this respect, Reitzel described open mic nights as a revolution, describing her personal takeaway as coming from being not only a poet, but an audience member.
“You watch people go from artists to performers. These things travel from their head and heart and into the world,” said Reitzel. “No filter. I just want to soak it all up.”