A classroom. A coffee shop off campus. Circles of plastic chairs or worn couches, tucked into the nooks and crannies of any one of Yale’s cultural centers. The middle of a wood-paneled room, people crammed shoulder to shoulder on the floor. The Sterling Nave. Cross Campus on an autumn afternoon. Sudler Hall. A common room.
Any one of these spaces can be home to spoken word, and all of them are transformed by it.
“It’s one of the most accessible art forms,” said Eli Benioff ’17, an artistic director for TEETH, one of Yale’s many spoken-word groups. “All you need is a stage and a poet.”
If you’ve ever been to a show, you’ll understand what he means. Onstage, poets spin syllables towards the audience in long, vaulting arcs of emotion, then draw them back to themselves for a quietly powerful moment of reflection or confession. When a line resonates with the crowd, audience members hum and snap, filling the air with an energy that shifts endlessly from painful to ecstatic and everywhere in between, angry or grave or bright with laughter.
The poet could be anyone, anywhere. For as long as they need, they fill the space with words, and all that matters is their story.
“You’re letting people into your self, right in the moment,” said Elisa Martinez ’18, director of Oyé, a group of spoken-word poets based out of La Casa Cultural. “It’s like telling a secret to a whole group of people.”
The deeply personal nature of spoken word constitutes part of what makes it so powerful. While novelists or painters can use their medium to express their own feelings and thoughts, they often do so through fictional characters or scenarios, distancing themselves from the story they are telling, at least to a degree. In contrast, spoken-word poets tend to write directly about themselves, typically using the first person. They often explore private or fraught moments in their lives, resulting in a kind of writing that is immediate, intimate and often visceral — alive with pain and joy.
“The point of spoken word is sharing what you feel and what you went through,” Martinez said. “Spoken word is almost always about your personal experiences.”
Another unique aspect of spoken word is the proximity between artist and performer. While a painter or novelist rarely presents their art to an audience directly — instead packaging it in a book or a museum — a spoken-word poet must stand in the middle of an empty stage and speak to an audience that is right there, living and breathing, waiting for words. The interaction is strikingly intimate, almost like a conversation, except for one vital thing — everyone else is there not to speak, but to listen. In that moment, the room belongs to the poet and no one else.
This is where the transformational power of spoken word comes into play. When a poet takes the stage, she creates a space to speak.
The concept of such a space — to tell a story and be heard — can be a political one, as forms of oppression such as racism and sexism have tended to marginalize people by depriving them of a voice in mainstream art, literature, culture and politics. It makes sense, then, that spoken word has a rich history of use as a political tool. Though people have read poetry aloud for millennia, spoken word as we see it performed today is largely the product of communities of color, with roots going back to the Harlem Renaissance and perhaps further. Over the years, the medium has been used by people of color and other marginalized communities to tell their stories — in other words, to speak in a world that has tried to silence them.
“The history of spoken word is tied up in giving people voice if they don’t have it,” explained WORD co-president Olivia Klevorn ’17. “It is designed for that form. Nothing else is designed in that way.”
And at Yale, many students use spoken word as a way to talk about their identities, finding a unique avenue for expressing aspects of their lives that have been shaped by categories such as race, gender or sexual orientation. Through poetry, they explore not only the struggle of living in a world that dismisses who they are, but also the joy of self-expression and affirmation. Above all, they make their voices heard.
“Through spoken word, I can make people laugh, cry, think about race and gender and learn something important about themselves,” said WORD poet Alex Zhang ’18. “That’s nothing short of magical.”
Klevorn, too, highlighted the tremendous power of spoken word as a way to express her identity.
“There are very few forms in which I, as a woman of color, have been able to say, ‘Look at me, watch me, hear me; this is my voice, this is my time, this is now,’ and have it actually work,” she said. “Spoken word gives us a moment in which we can create ourselves and present it to other people. It’s a totally empowering experience.”
Because of its close relationship to race and gender, spoken word has also provided a space for students to heal after the events of last semester, which served as a painful reminder to many of how much work Yale has to do before its campus becomes a truly inclusive space for people of color, especially women. In response, Next Yale came together to advocate for a more racially just campus. Many of the movement’s ideas resonated with the politics of spoken word, and a good number of Yale’s poets became involved with the group.
“I think some of our members felt an obligation to be more involved, and other members were sort of trying to find where they fit in,” WORD co-president Connor Szostak ’17 said.
Szostak also emphasized that, as individuals figured out their place in the movement, the group strived to be a restorative and productive space for all its members.
“A lot of these discussions have been happening in WORD for a while,” he said. “We wanted to make sure everyone had opportunities to heal and opportunities to vent so that members were best able to use their abilities to move the discussion forward on campus.”
For those who are not part of a performance group, the Women’s Center offered an informal space for students to use poetry to process and take care of each other. On a rainy night in December, people squeezed onto couches or cuddled on the floor, sipping hot chocolate and chatting quietly before the first performer took the floor. Hums and snaps filled the air as students used spoken word to tell stories about their feelings, relationships and identities — stories that belonged to them, that were charged with pain, resilience, joy and love. This marked one of a series of open mic nights that the Women’s Center began last semester, partly inspired by Next Yale.
“It was about how we could find a way to talk freely about what is going on within our community,” said Ashia Ajani ’19, who runs the open mics with Nicole Chavez ’19.
Ajani also hopes the open mic nights will promote collaboration between different cultural centers on campus without overshadowing the vital work that each group does on an individual level. To make space for conversations about the intersections of different identity categories, each night has a different theme. A performance last February highlighted Black feminism in honor of Black History Month; next Friday, the focus will be on queer feminism. Chavez explained that the open mic nights are meant to provide an opportunity for students to develop a sense of closeness and community by sharing experiences across different identity categories.
“It’s a place where people talk about their stories in a way that creates solidarity,” she said. “Regardless of whether or not you particularly empathize with that experience.”
The nights were an instant success, so popular that Chavez and Ajani had to relocate to the Afro-American Cultural Center in order to comfortably accommodate everyone who wanted to attend. The enthusiasm surrounding these events is telling; it speaks not only to the appeal of spoken word as an art form, but also to a deep need on campus for the catharsis and community it offers. What’s more, the excitement surrounding spoken word is far from new. Over the past several years, demand for performances has skyrocketed both at Yale and in general, and many groups on campus have moved to bigger and bigger venues in response.
For example, WORD has gone from performing for groups of 50 to groups of hundreds in only a few years, and just last week, Jook Songs collaborated with the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in New York City, where they performed to a full house. For many poets, performing serves as not only a chance to express themselves, but also a reminder of how important it is to do what they do.
“My favorite part is actually the fact that I’m performing with all these beautiful people who I trust,” said Victoria Wang ’18, a poet in Jook Songs, a group for Asian-American students. “The sense of community and empowerment is so strong. It makes me feel like I can make a difference just by speaking my truth, and I always feel proud of the work I’ve done.”
The increasing popularity of spoken word allows poets to communicate urgent messages to more and more people, in addition to providing them with opportunities to build themselves as artists and performers. Though it is relatively young, the genre, historically devalued due to its association with marginalized communities, is quickly gaining traction. This change is not only exciting; it is important.
But change does not come without its challenges. As audiences flock to shows by the hundreds, poets must navigate the complex relationship between performance and authenticity, at times forced to choose between the stories they have to tell and what people want to hear. This tension is especially difficult because, unlike other forms of art, spoken word encourages an audience to respond directly to a poem in the same moment it is being performed. When people snap and hum in appreciation, a poet can tell right away if her piece resonates or not, which often creates pressure to appeal to an audience.
Many members of the spoken-word community treasure the intimate nature of the medium, and they worry about the increasing focus on audience reception, which can distract from the inherent value of the poet’s story. Sarah Pearl ’18, an artistic director for Oyé, emphasized the vitally personal nature of poetry, explaining that it is not an object for consumption by an audience but rather an open, honest way for people to explore their own thoughts and feelings. She hopes poetry at Yale stays a place to tell all types of stories.
Pearl also highlighted the importance of maintaining racial diversity in spoken word.
“It’s great that people are hype about poetry. It’s super exciting,” she said. “But I think that, as poetry continues to grow, we have to make sure that minority voices are represented.”
Art is always in flux, and spoken word is no exception, especially as the genre becomes more institutionalized. But some things never change, and the power of spoken word to give people a voice is one of them. When a poet steps up, adjusts the mic and utters the first syllables into the waiting silence, the room changes. Whether it’s an auditorium or a coffee shop, a cultural center or a classroom, it becomes something new. A place for confrontation, discovery, healing. A space to speak.
And that’s the thing about spoken word — no matter what, a story is being told.