On Friday, WORD: Performance Poetry at Yale presented its fall semester show, “Friday the WORDteenth” live on YouTube. The show explored themes of isolation, trauma and racial tension through spoken word poetry.
WORD, which has 17 active members this semester, held its annual show virtually to abide by safety guidelines. This performance, which accumulated over 170 views, created a sense of community for viewers in an isolating time.
“Everyone may feel very far away but for an hour on a Friday night we can still come together for the sole purpose of listening to poems. I think that’s really beautiful,” Irene Vázquez ’21, a member of WORD, said.
Vázquez said that performance poetry, or “poetry that is written with an ear towards the sonic and the performed elements,” is especially important in a pandemic. The creative process of writing poetry can be a “coping mechanism” to reflect upon how the world has changed, she said. But beyond this support to writers, performance poetry also creates a broader sense of community with its audience.
The spirit of WORD comes from its people.
“Everyone is just always so ready to hype everyone else up,” WORD member Baylina Pu ’23 said.
These bonds are strengthened at meetings, where members recount their highs and lows of the week before they begin writing and exchanging feedback. Pu added that this helps members feel safe while pushing them to improve.
According to Vázquez, several poems in Friday’s show originated from short writing prompts — members use them to stimulate creativity — in weekly meetings. Members picked an idea they liked and turned it into a show-length piece, which ranges from two to five minutes.
During rehearsals, members found that mentally preparing for a performance is different when the stage is a computer screen. Before Friday’s show, Pu said the WORD performers virtually continued a pre-performance ritual from before the pandemic — a “shakedown to get energized.”
Friday’s show began with a pre-recorded performance of “This is My Voice,” an opening piece performed by WORD members at every show. Vázquez described it as “low stakes and fun;” a space for people to reflect upon their lives at the time.
After the opening, Cassidy Arrington ’23 introduced each member before they performed their poem live. These show-length pieces dealt with themes ranging from isolation during the pandemic to the anxieties caused by the election.
Jeffrey Caliedo ’24, one of WORD’s newest members, explored his relationship with religion and his identity as a queer person of color from the South.
“We’ve all experienced loss, we’ve all experienced grief. I really do think the writing finds a way to connect with everyone that watches it or hears it,” he said.
Members adapted their performance poetry for the online medium. Spoken word poems are usually memorized and presented through physical expressions and gestures, involving one’s entire body. But during Friday’s show, members sat before their screens while performing to maintain consistency across the group.
Despite this shift in transitioning to the online platform, WORD President Oscar López ’22 said that “the spontaneity of performance” has persisted in unexpected ways. Typically, audience members are encouraged to snap if they hear something they like. On YouTube, this translated to an extremely active chat bar, with a stream of virtual “snaps.”
Despite the pandemic, it was important for WORD to continue their performances. The group has performed at the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Open House and has conducted a workshop with the Boys and Girls Club in New Haven. Vázquez said it is important to rethink “what it means to perform right now” and find community through arts.
“Poetry and spoken word are always able to create community, even if it’s only online,” López said. “I think it’s a godsend right now.”
WORD will have a collaborative performance with the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective in December.
Dominique Castanheira | firstname.lastname@example.org