It was 7 p.m. on Thursday, and cold winds were blowing through empty campus roads. But there was a fire blazing in Bing Concert Hall, where the audience at Poetry Live! was snapping, clapping, tapping on tables and cheering. On the stage adorned with long red drapes, students performed passionate spoken word poetry.
The event, co-hosted by Stanford Live and the Stanford Creative Writing Program, invited students from Stanford’s own Spoken Word Collective to perform pieces to an intimate audience. The student works were followed by performances from poets Fatimah Asghar and Danez Smith. The poems, each one with more emotion and fervor than the next, filled the studio with warmth.
The night started off with a poem by Matthew Mettias ’23 and Nainoa Visperas ’25 that stood as a critique of tourism in Hawaii. The two performers’ soothing voices sang out their love for their homeland. Hawaii was the protagonist in their work, a caregiver who has brought them up with natural beauty and love.
This performance set the several themes of the night: heartbreak, resilience and community. The poem that followed criticized the dichotomy between the West’s treatment of Ukranian and Syrian refugees. With a scathing tone, Ryan Choeb ’22 called out the hypocrisy of countries who readily welcomed European refugees yet refused to provide for thousands of other displaced people. As the artist’s voice cracked describing how the nationality before the word “refugee” could be one’s meal ticket, the audience fell silent in pain and perhaps even a sense of guilt.
Other poems called out Western culture for ignoring the diverse identities of Asian women, exposed the misogyny of “man-whores” and confronted powers that restrain Black and queer voices. Each one questioned how culture is built and how society can suppress artists instead of acknowledging their impact.
Every artist on the stage spoke for a unique cause as they raised their voices under the fiery chandeliers. Their feelings were echoed by an audience that at times hummed in agreement, at times laughed and at times let out sighs of empathy.
Following the students, Fatimah Asghar’s performance started with a more lighthearted note, filling the room with giggles and ardor as they charmingly narrated a beautiful appreciation of queer love and sensuality. They continued with poems that highlighted socio-political issues in the age of COVID-19 and how apocalyptic our climate has become.
The excerpts from Asghar’s debut novel read just as poetic. Their work introduced the audience to three orphaned children navigating trauma through their sisterhood.
“The rain, mothering us faster home. The hallway birds, mothering their cages. The hamster, mothering its wheel. All the mothers in the world reach out to the motherless,” Asghar read, pointing out how caregivers can be found in every corner of the world, even though reality often seems cruel.
Similarly, Danez Smith’s performance echoed the firm ground that love holds despite systems that try to break it down. Whether they were reading a poem about coming out to their barber or a poem made of stanzas that each acknowledge a friend, their art felt like an ode to their community.
Smith’s attention to detail stood out as their poems highlighted qualities that make every friend, mother, cab driver or cook special to Smith’s journey. Their work formed a protest against forces that oppress the beauty in everyday people.
“Tonight, let every man be his own lord. / Let wherever two people stand be a reunion / of ancient lights. Let’s waste the moon’s marble glow / shouting our names to the stars until we are / the stars,” Smith chanted, once again highlighting the power of community amidst distress.
Despite the chilly night, I felt nothing but warmth as I walked back to my dorm. The night’s passionate performances reminded me of the resilience that is love.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.