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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘V.O.C.A.L. Presents…’ local and student poets

Published: April 8, 2011
Section: Features

On April 3, Olin-Sang Auditorium—most often known for large, lecture classes—was transformed into a stage for the abstract art of slam poetry. On this Sunday evening, V.O.C.A.L. Poetry put on their annual show titled V.O.C.A.L. Presents…, a performance benefit to raise money for the Waltham Middle School’s after-school creative writing program. The presentation showcased Brandeis 2011 slam team, a selection of middle school students from the program the event was benefiting and three well-known headliners.

Jason Simon-Bierenbaum ’11 is a founder of V.O.C.A.L. Poetry and a creator of the V.O.C.A.L. Presents… show, has been involved with the planning of V.O.C.A.L. before he was even a student at Brandeis. Although he took a step back from planning the event this year, he helped with bringing three spectacular poets to Brandeis: Joshua Bennett, Caroline Harvey and James Caroline.

“The headliners made sense because they were great people who would be down to do it for a price that we could afford while still giving a world-class show,” Simon-Birenbaum said. His work and connections were essential to adding these top-notch performers to the bill.

On Sunday evening, emcees and former slam team members, Simon-Bierenbaum and Rachel Parkin ’12, took the stage to start off the three-hour poetry showcase . Simon-Bierenbaum first performed one of his own poems, a comedic and quirky story about moving and shaking. Parkin then explained more about the art of slam poetry and its assertive and potential abilities: “[Slam poetry allows us to] take words and put them into action,” she said.

The 2010-2011 Brandeis Slam Team: Rawda Aljawhary ’13, Usman Hameedi ’12, Jordan Hinahara ’12, Sara Kass Levy ’12 and Ashley Lynette ’12, led the next portion of the show. Lynette, started off the team’s set with a sugary, youthful poem about candies and games. Following, Hinahara commandingly performed “Five Things She Learned from her Mother.” Levy, a shy and seemingly reserved girl, shocked us all with her personal, and powerful account about standing up for herself and commanding attention behind her seemingly shy, reserved front.

Closing out the first round of appearances by the team, Hameedi presented his work, “Pre-Med Track and Field.” Hameedi compared the pre-med academic track and his love for science chicks in a witty, coarse fashion, “digging into my chest, ripping pieces of my left ventricle.” His poem epically concluded with the line, “Keep training—I’ll see you at the finish line.”

Coming up to perform for the second time, Aljawhary, Lynette and Hinahara uniquely pieced together a poem about what it means to be Muslim, Jewish and Christian, drawing upon their personal beliefs and dilemmas associated with their perceived social, religious and personal identities. This included false stereotypes about Muslims, rights of passage, sexual escapades during Jewish summer camp, and explosive comments about being Christian and not conforming to their beliefs about being a woman.

Before the intermission, members of the Poetry Club from John F. Kennedy Middle School in Waltham performed. An after-school creative writing program, headed by teacher Kaytie Dowcett—a Brandeis alum and member of the class of 1999—brought four students to perform in Sunday’s show. The four poets were the finalists in last year’s poetry competition held at the middle school, which was emceed by Simon-Bierenbaum. The after school creative writing program was the recipient of the proceeds raised by ticket sales for V.O.C.A.L.

The young poets, who each received a standing ovation from the audience spoke about various topics, from war in Vietnam to social labeling and what it means to be popular. In a brief interview with Dowcett, she revealed that through her work with the Brandeis Slam Team and increased exposure to this type of poetry, she has gained a new understanding and respect for the performance art.

The second half of the show exclusively featured performances by the headliners, Bennett, Caroline, and Harvey. Bennett, of New York and graduate of UPenn, is an up-and-comer within the slam poetry community. Straight off an airplane from Philadelphia, he arrived and performed several poems. His delivery was full of passion, raw emotion, and his characteristic gut-wrenching and soulful tone. His other poems, one of which he also performed at the White House for Obama, detailed his work with low-income neighborhoods around Philadelphia and his personal barriers and struggles connecting with his deaf sister.

Personally referred to as the Carolines, Caroline and Harvey are two very well-known and respected local poets who are regulars in the Boston slam poetry circuit. Friends, colleagues and tour mates, Caroline and Harveyline switched off performing for the remainder of the show. Although both incredible writers and performers, they each brought different styles, themes and meaning to the stage.

Tattooed and leather jacket-wearing, Caroline stole the show. When he opened his mouth, out came beautiful, passionate and awe-inspiring words. Caroline’s poems were unequivocally passionate; they ranged in topic from his own family, to the lives and struggles of teenagers growing up queer in today’s world.

His most notable poem, which he concluded with, described the forbidden love of two Irish boy soldiers. With believable Irish accent and all, he delivered the poem in the words of one of the young boys. He discussed their blooming love, and mutual acceptance of being gay and in love. The story concluded with one of the boys going to fight in a battle. The other boy runs to him and gets shot by the enemy in the eyes of his love. The story was deeply emotional and brought to the audience thoughts about the universality of love, regardless of gender or sex.

Caroline Harvey, a composed, seemingly spiritual and artistic soul, took the stage to perform a poem titled “At Your Feet” about her personal journey to find Mashemone, a Mayan Mystical Spirit Deity located in Santiago, Chile. Before performing she explained some background. Mashemone, one of the holiest and most sanctified gods in his culture—and simply a wooden sculpture in form—is moved every night for protection.

Its location is kept a secret, only disclosed to the young children of the village, encouraging the local economy, by having tourists pay the children to lead them to the god. With detailed and personal accounts of searching, some of which were in Spanish, Harvey describes her longing to find and see Mashemone.

In between her poems, she openly discussed her personal experiences with writing poetry and the art of performing. She explained the intimate exchange between herself and the audience as she performs. Harvey continued, performing is an emotional experience, laying out her personal and secret feelings and thoughts and then presenting it to us, the audience. She continued by explaining how the audience’s role is reciprocal of hers. She herself feeds off the audience’s energy and in return can deliver an evocative performance.

Partway though her set, she called up slam team member, Hinahara to perform with her. To Hinahara’s beautiful singing of Amazing Grace, Caroline live-edited and composed some of her poems, on the spot—no notes, nothing prepared. She shocked the audience with the display of her innate and outstanding poetry abilities.

Overall, V.O.C.A.L. Presents… was a compelling and overwhelmingly successful event. The poets involved presented an incredible show that was simultaneously thought-provoking and inspirational. The night was a success—upwards of $300 for the creative writing program was raised—and those present were treated to an extraordinary performance in a genre that has yet to be explored by many.