Recording engineered and produced by Thomas Walsh
Gian Smith, a New Orleans spoken-word poet and educator, sat in a room with his eyes closed as he recalled the lines to a poem he had written. His voice went through areas of crescendo, there were times when his eyes clenched tighter, and through it all, you never felt like he wasn’t looking you straight in the eye. Metaphorically speaking.
That’s the thing, the it, the je ne sais quoi about spoken word poetry in New Orleans. The poet is up there on stage spilling his thoughts and insides about a topic that initiates personal passion and intrigue, but it’s not just about the single poet on stage. As Gian explains, “Poets, artists, musicians, all artists…we have to sustain each other.”
That means possibly only having fellow poets and friends in the audience during a spoken word open mic, and if you get the privilege to be one of those audience members, be prepared to get drawn in.
This past weekend there was a spoken word performance held at the CellarDoor. As one of the poets for the evening, Sha’Condria iCon Sibley, spoke about the biological invasion of poetry, she “interrupted” her poem with one cough. Then another. Then more. Until finally she was having a small coughing frenzy. The audience hushed for a moment, until she broke back into verse – signifying that those pushed exhalations of air were her poetry without words. There isn’t a straight line, one-way-only method when it comes to spoken work.
“A lot of what we put into it is drawn from the strength of the community we are in,” Gian explains, and if that means coughing in the middle of a poem, singing your poem to chords that you wrote, or looking deadpan into the audience, that is what the poem calls for.
It takes a lot to take risks like that and to try out material and words that a poet may not even be sure makes sense to them, but that is where the love of the audience comes into play. “We know we have a safe space for our work where we can be vetted without fear of losing our best ideas to an entity that would sooner exploit us then help us,” Gian explains.
The audience is a participant in many spoken word events. They are encouraged to clap along when a poem creates a beat, and you can hear phrases like, “Go, Poet,” and “Come on, Poet” shouted from the audience as the poet journeys into the words they have pieced and peeled together.
It’s what I am going to shamelessly call a poetic experience unlike any other, and it’s an experience that is popping up all over and around New Orleans. A great place to get into the action is with the Slam New Orleans team, which will be holding its finals on January 22, at the Ashé CAC at 6:30 p.m. Get out there and see what it is all those poets are talking about!