Five Spoken Word Poets Whose Work Will Change You

    Plus, their must-read books

    by · April 24, 2017

    Spoken word poetry has a history rich with traditions of hip-hop and blues, comedy, performance, and, most importantly, radical young artists. The art form is apparent in everything, from the writing that emerged out of the Harlem Renaissance to Gil Scott-Heron’s famed “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and spoken word has long flourished in part by positioning itself as a platform for political expression—and ultimately change. Today’s poetry performers have picked up where their predecessors left off, creating work that celebrates, honors, and preserves voices that are often stifled. Get to know (and support!) these five spoken word poets whose work will embrace and empower you.

    Safia ElhilloNot a fan of on-stage banter, Sudanese (by way of D.C.) poet Safia Elhillo often performs her poems back-to-back, creating beautiful epics that deal with issues like crossing cultures, the illusion of borders, and her love for her homies. Devour Elhillo’s poems one by one in her gorgeous book, The January Children, published with the University of Nebraska Press in March.

    What is your first memory of performing poetry?
    In middle school—I think I was in the sixth or seventh grade—we had an assignment in English class where we were meant to summarize a chapter of The Odyssey as a poem, and a few of those poems were then chosen by the teacher to be read at an assembly on Ancient Greece. My poem was about Nausicaa—I’ve been pretty nerdy right from the start.

    Why do you write? Why do you perform?
    I’ve always been a reader, and, as a kid, the only thing I really liked were books, so I wanted to write them one day. There’s something about reading an amazing book that makes writing seem like the most exciting thing in the world. Thankfully, I still haven’t lost that feeling. Performance was more of an acquired taste. When I started writing poetry consistently, in high school, the only spaces I saw other young people of color writing poetry was in slam, so I started competing in slams. The competition aspect was never super interesting to me, but that training taught me a lot. I still edit for sound just as much as I do for diction and believe in saying my poems out loud like I mean what I’m saying. Plus it’s a rush, really, to do something that is out of character for the introvert I actually am.

    What themes do you feel the most powerful writing about?
    I am most interested in failures of translation—linguistically, culturally, emotionally. I’m interested in the limits of what can survive across languages and across cultures. I’m obsessed with the things people use to identify themselves, especially when oftentimes the stuff we identify ourselves with is kind of fragile and man-made. Right now I’m really into the idea that countries are man-made and borders are fiction.

    What’s the last poem that made you cry, smile, or laugh?
    My friend Charif Shanahan, who is a real-life genius, has a poem in his collection, Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing, called “Asmar,” which he dedicated to me, and that immediately made me cry. In it, he talks about the weirdness of being black and an Arab and how no one ever quite knows what to make of your body in either identity. That feeling of finally being fully seen and of having a companion in this, so far, fairly solitary experience of hybrid identity also made me cry. The poem is absolutely gorgeous and is mind-blowing even on a technical level.

    What do you consider to be your book’s biggest achievement?
    My grandfather, the first poet in my life, is proud.

    If this phase of your life was a poem, what would you title it?
    I want to borrow the title of a Mohammed Abdelwahab song, “Ya Msafer Wahdak,” which translates to “You Who Travel Alone,” as I’ve been on the road fairly nonstop for the past three months and am basking in that solitude.

    Aja Monet
    To describe Aja Monet as a poet wouldn’t be the truth in its entirety: She is a performer, an artist, a singer, an educator, and an activist. Across mediums, her art empowers and educates, reflecting on her own experience as a Cuban-Jamaican woman and confronting the realities of oppression through survival, remembrance, and celebration. Monet recited a poem at the Women’s March in D.C. called “My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter,” after which she named her upcoming book due out in May.

    What is your first memory of performing poetry?I was 16, and I performed a poem in my high school talent show about why I write poetry. I was the only poet, and I took first place. Shortly after, a classmate told me about this city-wide poetry competition by Urban Word NYC. I signed up for a prelim poetry slam at St. Mark’s Church on Bowery. I fell in love with the poetry community that day, and although it was the first time I performed a poem in front of complete strangers, it felt like a family.

    Why do you write? Why do you perform?It changes, but I often write to listen—it has to do with resonance. I recite poetry because the power of performing has less to do with form and more to do with how what you’re saying resonates. Especially as truth-telling becomes less and less valued in everyday society, the power of telling the truth, not just writing it, is confrontational, especially in public. Not for the sake of just saying whatever is on one’s mind, but deeply delving into the mind, it’s conditioning, and saying words can help decolonize the mind in action. It is liberating. The sound of my own voice carries many voices. Sometimes it feels like putting on a warm coat in cold air, or strong arms holding up a frail body, or a smooth groove feet can step to.

    What themes do you feel the most powerful writing about?Depends on the day. Myself.

    What’s the last poem that made you cry, smile, or laugh?
    There’s this poetry program in South Florida called Exchange for Change. The program director Kathie Klarreich invited me to come and judge a poetry competition at a Dade Correctional Facility. There were so many powerful poets. One of them was named Louis Hernandez who wrote a poem called, “Because of Her,” which was about poetry, and another one he wrote was for the inmates on how messed up prison is but how powerful prisoners are. It really choked me up. America’s greatest poets are locked up in prison, and it’s a shame we don’t hear their voices enough. I think it would destroy prisons if we really listened to the people locked up in those cells. It would tear at the fabric of this country.

    What do you consider to be your book’s biggest achievement?
    What has amazed me so far has been the support and love shown throughout the process.

    If this phase of your life was a poem, what would you title it?
    “Fruition”

    Olivia Gatwood
    Find her somewhere between New York and Albuquerque, Olivia Gatwood is a forever-touring poet and educator who believes in the sanctity of girlhood and period panties as works of art. Her beautifully vulnerable and endlessly funny first book of poems, New American Best Friend, dropped this March and was No. 1 in the poetry category on Amazon within the first week.

    What is your first memory of performing poetry?
    Since I was able to read, I preferred reading aloud. I especially felt that way with poetry; I felt like it was really important that the rhythm be noticed, so I would kind of perform for myself as a way of understanding whatever I was reading. So, of course, when I started writing poems at about 11 or 12, I inherently performed them for whoever would listen. If I said, “I wrote a poem,” the implication was not “Do you want to read it?” but “Do you want to hear it?”

    Why do you write? Why do you perform?
    I suppose a lot of writers probably feel this way, but it’s kind of an instinctual act for me and always has been. In my adult life though, I’ve really grown to love the actual work of writing. It used to be an emotional outlet, and now I think it functions more as a practice that I love. My reasons for performing are a bit different—I think poems are meant to live off the page. I can get pretty bad stage fright and often fantasize about turning around and running out of the room before my name is called, but somehow I always end up on the stage. I want to do my own work justice and really care about how and when my poems are received, so I have to compromise for the sake of that.

    What themes do you feel the most powerful writing about?
    I’ve been writing about the age 13 for like, three years now. The potency of that stage of life is, I think, incomparable. More recently I’ve found a lot of power in writing about myself—not through anecdote or political stance—but truly taking accountability for the architecture of my brain, unpacking what it means to exist in the world as the human that I am.

    What’s the last poem that made you cry, smile, or laugh?
    Melissa Lozada-Oliva just sent me a poem called “A Game of Hot Potato with My Heart as the Potato” by Amy Saul-Zerby that fucked me up. Also, I’ve been watching and rewatching Danez Smith perform “Self Portrait as a 90s R&B Video.”

    What do you consider to be your book’s biggest achievement?
    The tangible success of New American Best Friend has been really shocking and is an amazing thing to witness. So there’s that. I think, more broadly, the book has resonated with such a vast group of girls from all different cities and countries, and I feel proud that I was able to write something with that effect. I wrote what I would have wanted to read, and it feels really good to see it in the hands of girls who need it now.

    If this phase of your life was a poem, what would you title it?
    “Last Night I Slept Alone and Tomorrow I Will Too”

    Melissa Lozada-Oliva
    Just when Melissa Lozada-Oliva has you delirious with laughter—probably reading a poem from her phone she literally wrote the night before about what she’d buy if she got paid for emotional labor—she sobers you up with a preciously crafted poem about being unheard in a white man’s world or how sisterhood has saved her. Melissa’s chapbook Peluda, published by Button Poetry, comes out this September.

    What is your first memory of performing poetry?
    I was in this late-night venue at my college, reading a poem about how it’s possible to be vegetarian and Latino. It’s really embarrassing thinking about what I thought was profound. I’m pretty sure I had this line that was like, “Being Latina means I actually think George Lopez is funny!” I also remember that I felt kind of high afterward, or just very alive. Anyway, I’m not a vegetarian anymore.

    Why do you write? Why do you perform?
    I need to make sense of the world and I love attention.

    What themes do you feel the most powerful writing about?
    Recently, for Peluda I’ve been writing a lot about hair removal in relation to Latinx identity. My mother is a professional waxer, so hair removal has been a huge part of my life and my womanhood. I think I felt ashamed that my mother wasn’t a doctor or a lawyer, that her profession was attached to something many white feminists consider shallow. I wanted to find a way to all at once reclaim this kind of labor and also reclaim my hairiness—something that, in some spaces, makes me distinctly Latina, or distinctly “other.” Reclaiming this—even celebrating it—makes me feel powerful.

    What’s the last poem that made you cry, smile, or laugh?
    A poem I saw performed by Andrine Pierresaint. She’s 14 years old and is writing poems that none of us are ready for. I wish I was writing like that when I was her age.

    What do you consider to be your book’s biggest achievement?
    This book is me holding up a mirror for my personal experience as a hairy Guatemalan-Colombian-American woman, and it was the reflection that I needed. I hope it reaches other hairy girls of color and encourages them to hold up mirrors, too, to create reflections of themselves and to put themselves into spaces that were not created with them in mind.

    If this phase of your life was a poem, what would you title it?
    Honestly, probably a line from a Mitski song. This one specifically: “Your Mother Wouldn’t Approve of How My Mother Raised Me But I Do, I Finally Do.”

    Elizabeth Acevedo
    For Elizabeth Acevedo, storytelling is an act of love and survival—her poetry acting as a paper trail of truths, beauty, and reclamation. The first generation Dominican poet has shared her work on tour, on TED Talks, and through both published poetry and fiction. Elizabeth is the author of the stellar chapbook, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths, with two forthcoming books, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm and The Poet X.

    What is your first memory of performing poetry?
    I competed at a poetry slam when I was 14 at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. It was thrilling to be in front of so many people and feel heard. I was so moved by the other poets, as this was one of the first times I’d ever seen so many people performing live poetry.

    Why do you write? Why do you perform?
    I write to process my many intersections and to understand how to exist in the world. I perform to connect with others and to see and feel seen.

    What themes do you feel the most powerful writing about?
    Anti-colonialism. There’s a lot to unpack in the way I was raised and brought up that is in direct to response to white supremacy, colonialism, Spanish rule, patriarchy, and Christianity. I find power in reconsidering narratives that rendered my ancestors and parents powerless. I find power in reclaiming.

    What’s the last poem that made you cry, smile, or laugh?
    Safia Elhillo’s entire new collection of poetry, January Children.

    What do you consider to be your book’s biggest achievement?
    It centers around the mythology of the islands, and I’m so glad to be able to call upon folkloric characters and make space to converse with them.

    If this phase of your life was a poem, what would you title it?
    Probably something containing the word “Multitudinous.”

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    Last updated: 2017-04-24T15:47:29-04:00
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