On Tuesday night, in a room lined with record covers and fairy lights, the Stanford Spoken Word Collective presented its first open mic of the year. Ethan Chua, the host of the night, livened up the atmosphere, inciting us to snap and stomp along as we witnessed and contributed to an act of creation.
The first poet brought us to Week 3 of his freshman fall quarter when a friend vaped in his presence. He was reminded of the stress and struggles that students feel even after university entrance. He thought about his grandfather, whose “lungs had a carbon footprint that could rival China.” Audiences laughed when he clarified “the only drug I have ever willingly inhaled came from a little red canister you had to shake like the devil before you could use it.” Listening to his piece, one could relate to the digressions of the mind. His connections were not linear — after all, he warned us that “[his] memory fades into the vapor” — but he gave us just enough to hold on to before a new line. Flashbacks interspersed with descriptions of the smoky vapor reinforced a sense of nostalgia and demonstrated what he would endure “for just a little taste of home.” With a spoken medium, the elocution of words may be unique in that one moment, but the words can resurface and reinforce forgotten connections.
Throughout the performances, I was intrigued by what triggered audience response. In a poem about simple carbohydrates, chemistry students in the crowd immediately picked up on puns about fractals and saturation, while others were captivated and amused by the image of simple carbs as “bloodstream echo chamber[s].” One of the lines, “simple carbs stared into the abyss, and the abyss didn’t spare them a passing glance,” easily cued audiences on how to respond (disapproving “oooh”s targeting the “abyss” were immediately heard). All poetry demands emotional and intellectual investment, but these lines invited the sounds of empathized angst, increasing the intimacy between audience and performer.
Some poems are colloquial while others are highly abstract. In less than 30 seconds, one poet captured our imagination, sharing “a day released while [she] was resting,” and in waking the earth, “it quaked with use.” Colloquialism was embodied and embraced in the opening line of another poet: “This is not an active bitch face/ but this is an active bitch face [contorts her face].” The line, “my face at rest is not a bitch face,” set the tone for “let me tell you a story about war.”
During intermission, a freshman sang Bon Iver’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” sweeping us away from grappling with words to immersing in notes.
Not all personal stories invite an immediate reaction. With lines like, “I’m sorry I keep telling you stories about war / How my face rests because it is tired of smiling / Being told to when it’s not”, the audience let the words sit in communal silence to reflect. We were not just making connections between words but also appreciating the openness and vulnerability of the individual.
How can the visual element of the written word be communicated in the spoken? One poet was inspired by blackout poetry (redacting words of an existing text to form a visual poem) to perform a piece that blacked itself out. Upon familiarizing with the original language, the poet traced us back to the beginning and stripped and reverse-engineered words to create new meaning. The new arrangement questioned the foundations of the original. We were witnessing an act of self-censoring, where words that were suppressed were as important as those uttered.
Similar to blackout poetry, being present in a spoken word performance is a selective act of seeing. What one relates to might be lost on another, yet the vulnerability displayed and the trust created in the space pushes the community in their collective imagination and creates a greater sense of empathy.
Contact Chloe Barreau at chloeb88 ‘at’ stanford.edu.