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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

VOCAL 2010 brings emotional relief

Published: March 5, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

POETRY SLAM: Jamele Adams, associate dean of Student Life, hosted Vocal’s poetry slam, infusing the event with energy and charisma.
PHOTO BY Nafiz “Fizz” R. Ahmed/The Hoot

VOCAL, a club combining poetry and activism, hosted their annual 2010 poetry slam concert, which featured performers that exemplified the visceral nature of the spoken word. Each poet fueled their work with a reservoir of feeling, moving the audience with lyrical phrases, metaphors and beats. By the end of the evening, left shaky and exhilarated, the crowd and I learned what it meant to be slammed by poetry.

Those unfamiliar with slam poetry must have been shocked at what they encountered on Sunday night. Audience members danced to the hip-hop reverberating from DJ Esquire’s speakers as they cheered and applauded the entrance of the opening act. Host Jamele Adams encouraged the crowd to be “extremely disruptive to the people studying outside” the Shapiro Campus Center theater.

The beginning of the night let the uninitiated know that they were not about to witness laidback coffeehouse performances, but instead acts with the kind of energy you would expect at a rock concert.

The theme of the night was “Relieve,” as all the money raised was for the financial relief of Empowering Through Education (ETE), a summer camp in Hinche, Haiti. Set-up by Shaina Gilbert ’10, the camp’s mission is to teach and motivate the youth who will be the future of Haiti.

Throughout the evening, however, the attendees experienced a different kind of relief, an emotional one.

For me, the most memorable poems were the ones that clearly stemmed from deeply painful experiences or emotions and provided the poets—and through them, the audience—a way to lay down, for a moment, whatever has been burdening them.

In his poem “Imagine,” multiple national poetry finalist Oveous Maximus discussed his brother’s suicide. One line that was searing was his description of going through his brother’s clothes after his death, which he compared to “picking cotton in a field until you felt you were a slave to your own guilt.” The moment in which he expressed how his brother, who provided the motivation for him to become a slam poet, was “a kid whose screams in his lifetime were never loud enough,” was also poignant.

However, slam poetry isn’t just about words and language, but about the performance. “Imagine” was so gut-wrenching because Maximus’ voice, facial expressions and gestures, communicated his anger, loss and sorrow.

Another equally powerful poem was by VOCAL poetry slam team member Sara Kass Levy ’12 who used war imagery to describe an act of sexual violence. “You wanted a body, I gave you a corpse,” she said. While she spoke, she traced invisible wounds on her arm.

Not every minute of the show was filled with such heavy emotions, though; there were welcome interludes of comedy. Longtime slam poet veteran Regie Cabico had a style akin to a stand-up comedian’s delivery. During his Tina Turner impression and his hysterical short poem “Night of the living sex toy,” I could barely breathe from laughing so hard.

Cabico was adept at switching between humorous and serious moods. While one minute I chuckled at one of his clever jokes, the next I felt like I was sucker-punched by a particularly sad image. In his poem about growing up in a Filipino family, he described how his mother wanted him to “be like Oprah, Regie,” pronouncing Oprah as if the name had an ‘h’ in front of it. What was at first funny quickly transformed into something devastating as he spoke about his reaction to his mother’s construction of a shrine of all his trophies and awards. “I’m not your Oprah,” he said, Oprah becoming synonymous with the word “hope.” “I’m not the patron saint of your immigrant dreams,” he continued.

Many of the acts throughout the evening explored the topic of relationships and love. Brandeis alum Simone Beaubien performed a clever piece that used the structure of the Fibonacci sequence. She ended the poem with, “This poem was supposed to start with zero … the heart is a number the shape of a fist.”

Some poems that were effective, but did not stem from personal experiences, were criticisms of modern culture. Phil Kaye, especially, used poetry to examine politics and the media. Intertwining samples from radio hits along with current news, Kaye critiqued the United States’ imperial and consumerist mindset.

Not only were the wide variety of topics the poems covered impressive, but some poets displayed their mastery of language with their ability to form beautiful or striking images through the medium.

One of the highlights of the evening was listening to Rachel McKibbens, 2009 women-of-the-world poetry slam champion, come up with gems like “girls like hunks of bread.” In a poem about a husband’s admission of adultery, her description of how the narrator’s knowledge of the mistress haunted her was also brilliant. She said, “her smile is a plate I lick clean every meal.”

Overall, VOCAL’s annual show was an amazing experience that was not to be missed. Although the show was more than three hours long, not once did the energy of the performers or the audience lessen, which made the entire experience slightly overwhelming. By the end I was both physically and emotionally exhausted. Even so, there were many moments that I wish I could relive.

Somehow I feel that reading the poems that were performed or watching videos of the acts would cheapen the experience. For, isn’t slam poetry meant to be experienced? Poet Anis Mojgani, master of beautiful turns of phrases, encouraged the audience to “come into this” and immerse themselves in language and feeling, and, for three-and-a-half hours, the audience did just that.