Spoken Word

This past week has been quite surreal. One of the residence halls on our campus is very much a center of all backgrounds of creative and expressive students. They frequently have guests-in-residence who are artists. This last week, their guest was Aya de Leon.

I had heard Aya perform on campus three years ago. Among other things, she mostly performs spoken word poetry, and she is amazing. I came across a schedule of events she was hosting this week and found myself attending each evening. There were workshops on tapping into our creativity, how to stay motivated during big projects, and writing from short prompts. It felt great to be with all of these creative people, mostly students, but also some older-timers like me. She creates such a safe, anything-goes environment, which is how art should be. She tells you it's okay to have a "shitty first draft" and that at first, it's all good. To turn off the inner critic. And to realize that as children we are all so creative and that we are told by society to stop doing this or act right or quit being so weird. She had us create affirmations and anthems to get into the mood and stay the course.

My affirmation became: there's a lot of shit out there, so my shit should be out there with it.

My anthem: "Fiction" by The Lucksmiths - it's a beautiful song that has a chilling instrumental climax; the lyrics are about the singer encountering a woman who had a tatoo on her arm that read "Fiction." She said it reminded her of what she wanted to be doing, whether reading it or writing.

Even though all of that was a great experience, the two best experiences this week were the performances. On Wednesday, Aya performed. This woman can turn words on you, go from rage to reflection, and bust out a perfect performance. My favorites of her works are Cellulite (about the pressure in media for women to be thin to be considered beautiful and the celebration of having cellulite), Sensitive Guys (like it sounds, a very funny piece about all guys, even South Central gangsters are really just sensitive guys), and Vieques (about a small island off of Puerto Rico the US Navy used for weapons testing, it portrays the island as a young girl being abused by her stepfather). Her performances rocked! And she showed a video of her one-woman stage performance which was at times very uncomfortable. She plays this role of a girl in hip-hop who's been exploited and thinks her sex appeal is what makes her a person, and in the middle of her song, she has a breakdown. It's really power but hard to watch. Aya said instead of criticizing women like this character, she wanted to inhabit her and experience her life.

And the finale on Thursday was open mic night. Now, I have stood in front of a crowd of strangers twice in my life to share my writings aloud. Once it was for a Poetry class I took in college. The other was an open mic night event I was in grad school. I told myself I was going to perform my first spoken word at this Thursday's event. And I did!!

At first I picked six-seven pieces to share because they all fit the universal theme of time. In fact, all of my pieces from the Vignettes of Time series I wrote on this blog were included. All of them did come from posts on this blog:
- Sleep Debt
- Time Capsules
- Corporate Methods of Savings
- Fairy Tale or Fairly Tale
- Still Spring After All These Years
- Sleep Debt (Reprise)

I practiced them and called up The Gouda herself to get her constructive feedback as my test audience of one. As expected she had wonderful ideas for improvement.

On show night, I found out there was a 3 minute time limit, which never occured to me but makes sense. So I tried to decide if I should perform some of them or just one. Allie and I both thought the most powerful was Sleep Debt, and being my first experience with spoken word, I decided less is more. Besides, I start shaking when I perform, so best to contain my jitters!

I had come to know several people during the week, one of which was Mohawk Guy. Mohawk Guy is a senior and quite cute. And possibly gay, but it's hard to tell with those artsy types. Anyway, he's been helping out Aya during her stay here. I had a chance to interact with him during the last workshop before the open mic. He plays guitar and piano, sings, and writes music. He and I talked before the open mic, and like many people this week, thought I was a student. I explained I was an academic advisor, and he asked where I live. Then he gets close and says with this mischievious smile, "I have something to ask you and feel free to not tell me." I'm thinking, wow, he's being rather forward, and yes, I will make out with you afterward. Then he says, "Is there any way for me to get out of the foreign language requirement?" Without missing a beat, I say, "Actually yes," to which he gets all excited, and I continue, "if you can prove you have a language learning disability." So we talked about that for a while. Hmm... I still think he was being playful. Anyway, he's starting up an artist support group that I joined, so I don't think I've seen the last of Mohawk Guy.

It comes to sign up time, and I cleverly decide (as the first person on the list), that I'll sign up for slot 3. Then it occured to me, what if no one signs in slots 1 0r 2? Then I'm going first! Fortunately, one person did sign up before me, so the "first performer" pressure was off. As I expected, Aya set the tone that we support everyone with loud cheers and clapping before and after, and the crowd did just that. I'd say there were about 40 people there. It's my turn, and I know I'm going to unleash something on an unsuspecting crowd. I'm usually reserved with people I don't know, and in workshop settings, I tend to me quiet.

I can't explain where it comes from, but when I perform "Sleep Debt" I turn into someone else. It's very angry and frustrated, and I channel that into this hip-hop stylized voice I don't really ever use. I like to think it's my alter ego Warren Peace coming out. I told the crowd this was something that pisses me off. And I launched into it, and despite losing my place once, which I covered with a joke about being too pissed off, I thought I did really well. By the end, as it builds up, I started to visibly shake. It felt liberating to do this. It felt liberating to say this to a supportive audience. Afterward, Aya came up and said, "You have to be careful with the quiet ones, they surprise you every time."

It was nice to then sit back and enjoy the rest of the performances. Two cats who performed were just amazing. The guy who followed me, Moses, throws so much at you that you can't take it all in. Later I found out he's been doing spoken word and freestyling since his childhood. Last, Mohawk Guy performed a song he wrote. It wasn't what I expected from him at all, very mellow, and his voice sounded muted and smoky. In all, a surreal experience.

Afterward, I thanked Aya for the entire week, and she hugged me and said she loved my performance and encouraged me to keep it up. I also talked to Moses, and he and I talked about each other's performances. He told me to definitely come out to other open mic events to share my voice. I told him I certainly plan on it, now that I've found a venue where I can channel my bitching in a constructive way. Cuz lord knows (and those who know me personally) that I got plenty to complain about. Lastly, I congratulated Mohawk Guy on his song, and he also said great things about mine. I told him I'd hope to see him again in the support group.

This week was a shot in the arm for my creative spirit and my life in general. I made some commitments to write plenty of shitty first drafts, to get my fiction project going, and to not make so many excuses. I'm jazzed!


Allie D. said...

Oh I'm so thrilled for you, Chris!! The event sounded so invigorating, and so do YOU, which I think is most important.

I hope you will be able to find a venue that will also allow you to perform your other pieces!

Robert said...

Did anyone record that open mic performance? It would be nice to hear it.

Army said...

Robert - it wasn't recorded, no. I do wonder what it sounded like though (as an observer). Maybe if I keep it up, I can lay down some tracks : )

Allie - there's an open mic this Thursday that I may have to hit!

Adva said...

Chris, I liked your performance piece...I felt like you had to read it fast to get the pace of it...I would like to see you perform it some time.