The Next Level of Poetry

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I was never a fan of poetry. Rhyming didn’t entice me nor did lengthy sonnets we had to ruminate and write about in school. I wasn’t a self-proclaimed poetry buff until I discovered Saul Williams, the name that started my long-term relationship with the art of spoken word.

After that first Youtube video of Shihan performing Saul’s “This Type Love,” I was hooked. This wasn’t poetry the way I used to define poetry—this was connections being made and minds exercised and entertained as the Def Poetry Jam artists sang and cried and sent off their messages in bouts of ceaseless undulance that moved me along with their waves.

I grew accustomed to hearing Mos Def’s characteristic voice introducing the artists on screen as my eyes remained entranced, as well as my ears. I’d await the artist to come on stage (on Youtube) in anxious, childlike (or Sarah-like, for those who know me) impatience, waiting to see which emotion the performance would evoke: laughter, melancholy, familiarity, or a mélange of the three or more.

I’d wait with pen and paper handy, ready to write down lines that struck a familiar chord in me, or ones to recycle and present to friends as makeshift gifts of consolation for whichever issues they were dealing with at the time—letting them know that they weren’t alone in their struggles and that their feelings were neither naïve nor unfounded because others were experiencing them too, so much, that they took those fears and anxieties and professions of joy on stage to share with others.

Spoken word is as much about how the words are delivered as it is about the actual content. Every eye shift, hand movement, and tone of words adds or sometimes takes away from the meaning of the piece. Saul’s low voice, chanting the lines to “Gypsy Girl,” growing more frantic as it approaches the climax, then calming down again to a monotonic lull still gets me every time. Every single time, it leaves me speechless with the only word managing to escape, a breathless “wow”.

I can’t picture the story being told any other way. But who knows? Saul’s words can be taken and performed by someone else in a different way to provide a different meaning to Gypsy Girl’s tale—perhaps turning it into one of happiness. I remember taking “This Type Love” for an English assignment and modifying the words to express the relationship and treatment that Latino immigrants ideally wish to receive from their new country’s government.

My performance changed the tone, content and meaning of the words from detailing the little quirks that create a loving relationship based on the same level to telling the story of a long-term servile connection between a hard worker and his country that’s not as affectionate as the former.

From Shaheen’s video, I moved on to names I knew: Common, Talib and even Kanye took his turn on the Def Jam stage. I still think “Bittersweet” sounds better without the music. Then I moved on to unfamiliar names—what undiscovered talent. Those women. Those strong, powerful, beautiful women, brave on stage, opened up about their fears, their voices lilting as they talked about their need to be coveted based on what their minds entailed and not what their bodies detailed.

Their voices sometimes breaking as they relived experiences through the unrelenting time machine of the mind, but always building up to a stronger finish as they recounted their dreams, goals and aspirations—their legacy to women everywhere based on hard-learned lessons.

Anyone with a passion (this is key) and a message can deliver a successful spoken word performance. This medium is not limited to Lauryn Hill wannabes or afro-donning poets, or as Cedric the Entertainer’s poem for Def Poetry Jam describes, “…another cliché…you know, the dreadlock hair and the Erykah Badu Musiq Soulchild headwrap wearin’ brother that’s…gonna tell me way too much about…how the white man keep keepin’ a brotha down.”

It is an art form that unites every color, nationality, neighborhood, and I’ve heard pieces covering every single cause from the use of the word “nigger” (Julian Curry’s “Niggers, Niggas and Niggaz”) to the abasement of cat calling as a way to get a woman’s attention (Amalia Ortiz’s “Cat Calls”).
Poetry is words while spoken word is real—the two are thought of as synonymous, but I believe the latter enhances the former. Spoken word brings the words and stories to life and paints a picture with sounds and tones and people.

It provides a stage for all poets, both young and old, to project their strifes and their passions regarding everything from Palestinian tragedy to Somalian identity to individual tragedy in trying to establish a comfortable, fitting identity. It’s a universal method of breathing out issues and struggles or as artist J.Ivy puts it, “…my pops died and it’s hard dealing with it, I need to write…they done stole my hoodie, I need to write,” (Def Poetry Jam, “I Need to Write”).