Spreading the Spoken Word, With Soul and Swagger


Author: Kate Bustamante

Long before poets were printing their words of passion and mass distributing them to inspired readers, masters of language were performing their creative pieces to live audiences. Monumental works such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, for example, were created by the oral passage of stories which culminated in the epic poems that students so meticulously analyze today.


Taking a page out of the ancient Greek tradition, many poets have recently returned to this traditional style of oral performance, and from this revival has sprung a poetry sub-genre known as “spoken word.” Spoken word poetry refers to any type of creative writing that is performed orally rather than being printed and distributed. Poets often recite their works with the help of props, background rhythms or music.


Spoken word as a movement — as a visceral, interactive, shoe-tapping, finger-snapping, no-rules means of self-expression — emerged during the Harlem Renaissance, and much of the rhythmic form derives from blues and hip-hop music. During the 1960s, Beat poets, most notably Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, created the “coffeehouse” poetry culture, using their poetry to express their politically-driven views.


In the 1990s, performance poetry spiked in popularity and the art form began taking its current shape. It even became so popular that M.T.V. showcased spoken word performances in a show called “Spoken Word Unplugged,” taking the culture mainstream, and giving a voice to young artists and activists.


Until recently, however, Occidental lacked a spoken word presence on campus, apart from occasional performances at open mic nights. In fall 2010, Sarah Winters (junior), Elinor “Nora” Utevsky (junior) and Maya Morales (sophomore) formed Occidental’s first Spoken Word Club.


“We were all really interested in spoken word and slam, but saw nothing like that on campus,” Spoken Word Club co-president Winters said. “While there were organizations for creative writing, they were all focused on the written word or producing literary mags. Literary magazines like ‘Feast,’ as well as the English and theater departments, sponsor writing contests, but none are geared toward the spoken word.”


Now in its second year, the Spoken Word Club gives a voice to the poets on campus who commit their poems not to paper, but to memory. As Club events often fill entire classrooms with eager audiences, it is clear that the Club and its art are well-received around campus.


“I find slam poetry incredibly fulfilling,” Jeremy Childs (first-year) said. “You have the opportunity to experience the entire spectrum of human emotion in the span of a few minutes when you listen to a poetry slam.”


Spoken Word Club organizes many events on campus for poets to perform their works. During the first week of every month, the Club hosts an open mic night known as “Strophe,” named after the Ancient Greek term for odes sung by a chorus during Greek tragedy performances. At the most recent meeting of Strophe on Nov. 2, Winters and a host of other students presented their poems to a packed crowd in Johnson 200.


Participant David Pino (sophomore) read a “love” poem titled, ironically, “Why I Don’t Write Love Poems.” Pino prides himself on being the only poet to rhyme that night. “I try to perform with a soul and a swagger, along with a rhythm and beat, every time I get on the stage,” Pino said.  


Fellow poet and Strophe participant Patricia McGown (sophomore) explained why she enjoyed the opportunity to share her words. “For me, it’s really great to perform. I write my words because they’re how I’m feeling. Spoken Word has impacted me by giving me the space to break down and be open, and to have positive vibes and energy to help build me back up. It’s a great space, and I can’t wait to try out for the Slam Team,” she said.


The Slam Team that McGown hopes to be a part of is an integral part of Spoken Word Club, dealing with a specific subcategory of spoken word performance that involves a component of competition. Slam poetry is essentially a competitive form of spoken word poetry, and Occidental students will compete in a qualifying slam in order to earn spots on this five-person team.


Due to the competitive nature of slam poetry, there are specific rules for the events. Poems are judged by randomly-selected audience members and poets are presented with scores of 0-10 from each judge following their performance. Typically, poems must remain under a specific time limit, usually three minutes, and props or other devices are never allowed.


Spoken Word Club has hosted several slam events, including last month’s Beginner’s Slam, which gave inexperienced “slammers” the opportunity to read two 3-5 minute poems before an audience in Mosher 200.


Sophomore Daphne Auza, winner of the Beginner’s Slam, was excited to discover a new style and outlet through which to share her writing. “I started writing poetry about a year ago, when I was participating in a summer arts program. Until I chose to participate in Beginner’s Slam, I had never written a piece specifically for spoken word,” she said.  


The biggest event held by Spoken Word Club, the Qualifying Slam, will take place next month on Dec. 2. The Qualifying Slam is a school-wide poetry slam competition with two rounds of poems. The top five poets will compose the Occidental Slam Team, which will compete in April at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI), a national slam competition for college students held in Los Angeles.


For the Qualifying Slam, the club is flying in and hosting Adam Gottlieb, a poet featured in the slam documentary “Louder Than a Bomb,” to be the night’s headliner. Gottlieb will perform a 20-30 minute slam poetry set after the competition portion of the event.

Through events like Strophe and the Qualifying Slam, Spoken Word Club hopes to create a larger following and participant pool on campus and introduce people to the exciting versatility of the form. “It’s important because, like any form, it brings people together,” Winters said. “Spoken word allows us to share our truths and our stories, allows us to understand each other better. It lets us make sense of our lives.”


Winters said traditional poems intended for print can’t match the all-senses barrage of a spoken word poem. “It’s more like storytelling than page poetry is. At a slam, you feel the immediacy of the poem that’s being told right in front of you. Slams have t
his amazing energy. People stomp and clap and respond to the poems. It’s less proper than page poetry, less reserved, more stupid and more bold in a lot of ways,” she said.


As its founders had hoped, Spoken Word Club has gained a presence on campus and grown considerably in size over the past year through its many events. Winters said that Spoken Word Club plans to make use of its new-found success by holding more monthly meetings as well as more events in the coming months.


Winters said she feels that spoken word will continue to flourish at Occidental.


“It’s really gratifying to see lots of Oxy’s own talented poets perform, and to see the audience respond to them — it made me feel like our efforts have been successful, that there could actually be a slam scene that can continue to grow out of the Oxy community.”


Interested in joining the Spoken Word Club or performing at next month’s Strophe? Email the club at poets@oxy.edu.

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