By Edith Yang
Raw and immediate.
That’s how Kevin Holmes, a UC Santa Cruz slam poet, describes what spoken word means to him. As a part of UCSC’s slam poetry team, whose members perform on campus and compete in national competitions, Holmes sees the art as an experience of the moment.
“Every time we do an event, you are there and you are creating a unique experience every time you read a poem,” Holmes said.
The ephemeral nature Holmes describes is discernable in the uniqueness of any given performance: every pause, hand gesture and tone in the poet’s voice is a manifestation of the performer’s expressions. Intensity mounts as the poet takes a theatrical gasp of air before delivering a crucial line or gestures wildly to match each word slowly being drawn out with each breath.
Spoken word is typically defined as a performance that uses lyrics, poetry or stories and has an emphasis on the speaker’s delivery. The frank and uninhibited quality of spoken word, which has attracted many people and taken many forms over the years, can be traced back to a variety of influential movements. Many believe that the beat poets of yesteryear, who were known for expressing their political beliefs through the emergence of spoken word, created the style.
Similarly, performance poetry exhibits visible and audible roots in musical movements, especially hip-hop. According to Tricia Rose, an African studies professor at Brown University, spoken word performance evolved from hip-hop.
“There wasn’t really a spoken word movement of the size that it is with the style that it is [now] until hip-hop really emerged,” Rose said. “Oral poetic storytelling, in a very rhythmic and physical way, predates all of hip-hop particularly in black oral tradition of varying types.”
However, Rose noted that not all of spoken word is based on hip-hop, and some spoken word communities do not use any hip-hop qualities in their performances. Although hip-hop and spoken word are related as forms of oral expression, they can vary greatly in approach and execution.
Baba Zumbi of Zion-I, an Oakland-based underground rap group, recognizes the similarities between poetry and hip-hop but distinguishes distinct differences.
“To me, it’s more about styling out — the aesthetic of rhyming, expressing something with the ability to flow to a rhythm,” Zumbi said. “If there’s any type of language, cutting-edge style came out of hip-hop.”
Spoken word has been around since the days of troubadours and storytellers, but its local popularity has fluctuated over the years. Mike McGee, a slam poet from nearby San Jose, finds it difficult to pinpoint the size of the scene in the city today.
“In Santa Cruz, it’s hard to say because I’ve seen it rise and fall a few times,” McGee said.
Still, Santa Cruz’s small but ambitious spoken word community continues to have a presence, especially on campus. The high attendance rate at last quarter’s Kinetic Poetics Project (KPP) festival, an annual poetry festival at UCSC, indicates that spoken word is alive and well within the student population.
McGee, one of the festival’s guest performers, was struck by the uniqueness of the student performances he saw at KPP. Poems at UCSC were more political than those in other places he has visited, he said.
“There is more of an interest in social issues as opposed to personal issues,” McGee said. “In LA, everything is very personal, very guarded. There’s so many people there and everyone’s just trying to survive.”
As suggested by McGee, spoken word in Santa Cruz has become a form of activism among students. To Jack Rusk, a second-year UCSC student and slam poet, the political fixation in spoken word is reflective of the issues that currently affect students.
“It’s like an indicator of what’s happening on campus and the way people are feeling in general,” Rusk said. “You’ll notice as times change, poetry changes. After Sept. 11, [there was a] big shift in the way people were writing poems just for slam.”
The ever-changing concerns of the student body are not limited to poetry, however. Holmes suggests that other campus groups like the a cappella choir, hip-hop groups and theater troupes are also outlets for spoken word expression.
Rusk added that both slam poetry and the art forms mentioned by Holmes rely on an element of immediacy.
“Like, right now I’m going to read you something or right now I’m going to dance you something,” Rusk said, referring to the momentary quality that makes spoken word so empowering for both the performer and audience.
“What you enjoy about spoken word is not defined by the fact that it shows up in words, it’s about that now expression,” he said.
Joseph Canuto, a member of the UCSC a cappella group Isang Himig, sees a correlation between the music he sings with his choir and spoken word performances.
“When [poets] speak their piece, they hit different points for people to understand. Same thing with music — we hit points to make people understand,” Canuto said.
The instantaneous expression from on-campus spoken word performances has inspired others in the city of Santa Cruz to pursue it as well. Christopher Robin, one of the co-founders of Wired Wash Café, a downtown open mic venue and laundromat, opened the venue as a place for people to freely voice themselves outside of an academic setting.
“We like to use swear words, have a good time and be as quiet or academic as the library poets,” Robin said. “[But] we wanted an alternative that is on the edge more. We just wanted a venue where everybody would feel welcome that wasn’t necessarily an academic poet.”
Even with small venues like Wired Wash making efforts to keep spoken word alive in the city, the closure of other major venues has thwarted the spoken word community. Diedrie Biddiscomde, manager of the Poet and Patriot Irish pub downtown, remembers when the E3 Playhouse was a vital center for spoken word in Santa Cruz.
“It was a huge poetry scene, but when that went out, everything really split up,” Biddiscomde said. “I don’t know if there’s any really organized events going on [anymore]. Once that closed, the poets split and didn’t have a central location where everybody can go read poetry — it broke up that community.”
Despite the inconsistent state of the spoken word scene in the city, the campus has maintained its vivacious energy among students. Accordingly, the majority of organizers and participants hail from a younger crowd. McGee attributes this fact to the endless flow of enthusiasm that comes from new generations as they enter the scene each year.
“I think what keeps it going at UCSC is the fact that the students tend to come and go,” he said. “There’s always a new crop of people being introduced to it or reintroduced to it. You have a youth that might’ve been kept quiet in high school and [when they come to college] they realize, ‘Wow, I’m in an environment that is so open and free for the most part.’ It’s a pretty great thing.”
With this perpetual regeneration as a reality, the future of spoken word on campus is promising. But can the same be said for the future of spoken word in Santa Cruz city?
As for Wired Wash Café, Robin hopes to gain more support from locals so that the city’s small venues can stay afloat and continue to provide an outlet for creative expression.
“We get a pretty good mixture of people of all different types and diverse styles of poetry as well, but it gets small and there’s only a few of us,” Robin said. “I just want locals to help us get the word out. It would be nice to have more young people. We don’t have too many students in here [but] it would be nice to have more of them. They’re always welcome.”
Some poets, including McGee, worry that false affiliations of spoken word with academia hinders attendance rates in some of the venues. McGee hopes to make spoken word poetry accessible to all to counter this.
Currently, he is planning a poetry performance tour with Anis Mojgani, another featured artist at KPP, to perform in people’s living rooms, balconies, college dorm rooms, backyards — any place that is not a “real” venue across the United States and Canada.
“I want to see spoken word go inside people’s homes,” he said. “As opposed to getting people out of their homes to come see us, we will come to them. Poetry should go to the people, not force the people to come to it.”
Others think that all-ages venues for spoken word would also help to create a center for the spoken word community. Biddiscomde hopes that with change, poets will be able to share their “raw and immediate” experiences at the right place and the right time together.
“I think that it’s reforming,” Biddiscomde said. “I think the personality of the person hosting [the events] that also has the time to promote it on the Internet and connect with the other poets to let them know that it is back — an all-ages venue would be the perfect situation. Word would go around and it will come back. They all miss it.”