By Taylor Shaw
I (and a few uncertain but optimistic friends) hopped on the D train and headed downtown for a night of poetry at the Sheen Center on Sept. 10. To some, this may sound strange, or even dreadful, but unlike the poetry one might read in his or her Texts and Contexts class, spoken word poetry is performance-based. It is an art form of storytelling and metaphors.
This performance in particular, entitled “All Falls Down,” featured renowned spoken word poets Sarah Kay, Anis Mojgani, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib and Clint Smith. The poets each performed before and after intermission, and finally, each concluded with a single poem, leaving the audience members’ heads spinning with literary ideas and long-lasting thoughts.
Each poet spoke out about a relevant social issue or topic at some point in his or her performance with artful respect. Additionally, each of the poets were encouraging and reverent of one another, noting that they had all been inspired or awestruck by one another at some point in their lives.
A few minutes after 8 p.m., Sarah Kay took the stage. She performed a variety of poems, incorporating “ghosting,” puns and Whole Foods without missing a beat. Kay left the audience grasping their hearts, shocked that they had been laughing only moments before. She ended her first act with a poem entitled, “The Places We Are Not,” about 9/11 and many violent acts of terrorism that followed. In this eye-opening piece, she both asked and answered: “‘Are you okay?’ ‘We are not okay, but please remind me that you are breathing?’” It was, in essence, a plea for a cessation of violence and terrorism.
Next, Anis Mojgani took a creative and impressively fluid approach to his poetry, reciting each of his poems so seamlessly that the audience could not tell where one poem ended and the next began. Those who had listened to his poems before recognized lines from a variety of poems, including “This Was How She Made Me Feel,” and, after the intermission, “Come Closer.” “Come Closer” was, in my opinion, the crowd-pleaser, but he used his center stage moment to bring suicide awareness into the spotlight with a newer poem, in which he explains, with striking imagery, the temptation of suicide. Mojgani said, “I am scared, but I am more scared of being quiet.” His words spoke loudly and left an impression on listeners’ minds and hearts.
Following Mojgani, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib took the stage with poems about home, labor, music, parents, the Chicago Bulls and even dreams, exclaiming, “In truth, I believe you were all there because I knew that in a dream, I could keep all of you safe. In truth, I woke still afraid.” His most hard-hitting piece was more difficult to decide upon, but I believe it was his piece on Michael Jordan. It began humorously, speaking to Jordan’s short-lived baseball career, but revealed a greater truth in the nobility of Jordan’s decision to, in the wake of tragedy, unlike most of mankind, fall back on something uncomfortable rather than comfortable, stating, “I would have watched you be unspectacular.” He stressed the importance of failure and the importance of striving forward nonetheless.
Finally, Smith performed, beginning with a poem about his father battling chronic kidney disease, encouraging people to be proactive and become organ donors. He compared his father to an oyster of New Orleans, where he is from, emphasizing the transformation from parasite to pearl that an oyster initiates. He spoke on the racial tensions and controversial deaths of African-American boys across the country, in a series of poems in which objects such as the ocean, cicadas, fire hydrants, windows and cathedrals are personified and speaking directly “to black boys,” with powerful and original comparisons and similarities. In the letter “To the Black Boy From the Fire Hydrant” he asks, “Do you know what it means for your existence to be defined by someone else’s intentions? Of course you do.” Smith continued with poems of fierce resolve and social activism, that left me feeling empowered and exposed.
Each poet brought something new to the stage in context, concept and style, and the night was filled with laughter, heartache and thrilling, thought-provoking ideas. I left the event knowing that it had lived up to its slogan, “For Thought and Culture,” and knowing that I would be back very soon.
All four of these poets have recent books and publications that I would recommend to anyone looking for a new read: “No Matter the Wreckage” by Sarah Kay, “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much” by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, “Songs From Under the River” by Anis Mojgani and coming out this week, “Counting Descent” by Clint Smith.