The Oberlin Review

Spoken Word Performances Captivate

Kif Leswig, Staff Writer

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Last week, the ’Sco played host to two outside Slam Poets. On April 21, Climbing Poe Tree introduced themselves as activists. Naima and Alixa, the two members of Brooklyn-based duo, draw inspiration from the urban problems of a 21st-century world. Climbing Poe Tree recite furiously physical poems about Hurricane Katrina, the prison-industrial complex and George W. Bush. There’s a melodic quality to Climbing Poe Tree’s spoken word and they went to lengths to make the event intimate. The pair redefined the ’Sco’s space by hanging banners of cloth pieced together from patches with poems written on them by fans from the stage to the bar.

Buddy Wakefield writes about more personal issues, and when he performed on April 26 he presented a few poems that had never been read before onstage — including one inspired by a restroom stall in Cleveland. Wakefield writes poems with an ear for the stage that adds a layer of complexity he thrives on, weaving moments of comic clarity with those of muddled vulnerability. In a sprawling one and a half-hour set, Wakefield bantered for most of the time between reading seven poems. At times, it was hard to tell if the poem had started or whether Wakefield was still telling a story animatedly.

Speaking with Wakefield a few minutes before his set, he insisted that his work be called performance poetry, not slam poetry. Slam poetry and performance poetry are closely related but separate movements that emphasize the spoken quality of poetry over the written. “I prefer ‘performance poet,’ or ‘stand-up poet’ or ‘spoken word,’ but not the competition of slam anymore,” said Wakefield, a two-time World Poetry Slam champion.

It was immediately apparent while watching Climbing Poe Tree that much of the nine performed poems at the ’Sco seemed to be made of well-worn expressions. One poem, introduced as “Being Human,” consisted of common objects personified then queried if they felt human emotions — “I wonder if stars wish/ upon themselves before they die/ if they need to teach their young to shine.” They spoke bluntly during another poem from their recent project, “Hurricane Season,”— “FEMA got folded up in Homeland Security’s back pocket” —while a slideshow of clipart and stock photos faded in and out behind them.

Naima and Alixa read most of their poems in unison, their voices blending together to form a hearty sound. When the two performers were in sync, their voices combine to add audible musical depth. And it’s telling that when the words come out of their mouths they sound more profound than when I reread them online later.

In Wakefield’s event five days later, the artist didn’t read his first poem until 20 minutes into his set. Instead, he spoke honestly about his touring fatigue — “I’ve been reading poems since January” — and his post-touring life plans. Although Wakefield seemed distracted onstage, particularly during the last two poems, his stage presence was still intense and enjoyable.

One poem, “For Carly Auctel’s Admirer,” is a thoughtfully considered rumination on found poetry. The inspiration came from a small message written inside a toilet stall: “Carley Auctel/ you are beautiful/ and you rock my socks/ and you are perfect.” Wakefield went through a few crowd-favorites, including finishing his set with “The Information Man.” Although his delivery was off toward the end, the poem demonstrates the tenuous and synergistic relationship between the spoken and written word in the world of performance poetry.

Slam competitions typically reward honesty above other emotions — tell your story, not anyone else’s. By telling a true story, perhaps we’ll come to some closer spot to truth, but as Wakefield noted during his set, sometimes the most true things are the most cliché.

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