The Paradise Rock Club, a modestly cozy venue, could barely hold the amount of people flooding through its doors this past Tuesday night. Was there another alternative rock concert? Was it time for Juice? Perhaps a mean magician act was about to take the stage?
No. The crowd was eagerly awaiting the performance of two spoken word poets—Sarah Kay and Andrea Gibson. People of all ages (though mostly young college students) stood crammed together for two hours, listening to the stories of the poets unfold. Their melodies of pain, happiness, regret, and hope were accompanied by finger snaps and visceral humming from audience members.
It felt as if I had been teleported back in time to Ancient Greece, when citizens gathered around to listen to rhetoricians emotionally move and enlighten them. In similar fashion, the crowd at the poetry slam gathered together with eyes and ears focused on the speakers on stage. The poets spoke truth—their truth— by stringing together words in rhythmic stanzas and gesturing their hands in flowing movements.
A sense of anticipation and appreciation rippled though the crowd, like the soft current of a lake moved by a single pebble. There was a feeling of unity that couldn’t be ignored, even under the dim lighting. Despite the age, gender, religion, and sexual orientation of each individual, a collective notion of acceptance and comfort seemed to infuse the room with each poem spoken.
The night started off with Sarah Kay, who was born and raised in New York City, speaking about her first encounter with a wild animal (she thought that the raccoon was a cat) and the magic of being a curious child. She weaved her way through the stories of her life, recreating each memory with the skill of a master craftsman.
Kay shared poems about lost loves, internal confusion, and global catastrophes. She explored topics of privilege, generosity, and adversity, and she excitedly asked the audience “Who’s in love out there?” The question received an overwhelmingly lively response. “Love reminds us that we’re alive,” she breathed into the mic.
Andrea Gibson, the second speaker of the evening, passionately delivered poems about feminism, sexual orientation, and abuse. She spat words with intent and urgency, gasping for air in between each phrase. After reciting a poem about a personal experience with sexual assault, Andrea explained her understanding of slam poetry and the power of truth-telling. She believes that heavy personal issues become lighter with the continued telling of them. As a poet, she tells her own truth in order to heal and to make sense of the world around her.
A rainbow set of poems—from drug addiction and domestic abuse to self-empowerment and unrequited love—was shared that night, bringing color and perception to most people’s gray understanding of the world.
Spoken word poets are the truth-tellers of today. They say what needs to be said. Spoken word helps them understand their thoughts and experiences. It is like finally getting a secret off one’s chest. At the same time, the audience receives advice, clarity, and maybe even discovers a newfound realization. Poetry is used to touch people’s emotions and build a communal sense of empathy. It is probably one of the greatest methods of persuasion because it targets at our subjective feelings and inner sense of humanity. It is not a formula that can be proven, nor a black and white problem with a clear resolution. Poetry asks for people to listen and to be moved based on what’s in their heart, not in their mind.