By Reza Corinne Clifton
Still a novice in the business of article writing and not yet untaught from the formality and fact-driven style of University writing, sometimes I get stuck in peculiar places. I may attend a concert or lecture, or I may interface with an individual or group, and a stirring in me will send a message to my brain saying “You have to write this up; you have to interview this person.” Sometimes the sensation is fleeting, like if I only meet someone once and I am in the middle of another story. Other times, I wake, sleep, shower, eat, etc. while the piece writes itself in and out of my consciousness. I don’t consider either of these peculiar to my habits, though.
The other instances occur when my instinct to share this information with others stays acute, while how to execute the article despairingly eludes me. The result is a gnawing, guilt-ridden, sleep-extracting, procrastination-perfecting series of days. It should be easy to overcome the challenge if I have just witnessed a phenomenal performance or have met one of the most inspiring persons; yet sometimes that very magnitude releases a flood of emotions, memories, and dreams that make it in fact more difficult for me.
My latest challenge of said caliber started at a slow, non-intimidating rate in July during the first of a six day arts and culture festival. The Providence Black Repertory Company’s Sound Session 05 premiered on July 16 with a night of diverse poetry and spoken word and live music. Those familiar with the Black Rep’s programs know that its musical bar and café, the Xxodus Café, features a poetry-dominant open mic hosted by established regional poet Christopher Johnson. But the 16th was different.
The lineup and performances, composed of and compiled by local and non-local brown-skinned poets, was as diverse as it was exhilarating. Poets like Iyaba, Ursula Rucker, and Ove exposed the historic and current degradation of Black men and women, espoused a new era of freedom music, and paid homage to the perfect and flawed.
I walked in late during the first poet-performer. What I found was an audience engulfed in the physical and vocal movement of a woman dressed in a basic black shirt and long blue skirt yet cloaked in an ethereal mysticism. Shortly after my entrance, Iyeoka invited a young man onto the stage for her subsequent piece. As her voice hit crescendos and decrescendos, she kept her eyes directly on him; we in the audience remained bewitched as well.
Disappointed in myself for my tardiness and the consequence of it—viewing but one and one half of her poems—I approached her after her performance to praise her for the little that I did see and to ask about other upcoming shows in local venues (she hails from Boston). She revealed that she would be back in Providence in early August at AS220 for a show of regional poets.
As the weeks progressed, I contacted Iyeoka to clarify the exact date and time. What our conversation exposed was the fact that August 4 was actually a Regional Slam poetry competition with poets from Worcester and Boston, Massachusetts—the Boston Lizard Lounge team not the Boston Cantab team—and RI.
Even more excited than before, I arrived at AS220 on August 4 ready to watch and listen to Iyeoka among the others. Soon after arriving, I learned that this regional slam was special: the Massachusetts teams and some of the RI poets actually represented teams attending the National Slam Poetry competition scheduled for Albuquerque, New Mexico later in August. This meant they were the cream of the crop; finalists with poems, styles and deliveries judged to be the best.
That night, I attended what felt like more than a poetry session. At times, as Iyeoka recited poems lamenting the disregard for natural life or reminisced about having to accept her non-Anglo beauty, I stepped back in time to an era when I became proactive about discovering myself.
Dissatisfied with the social constraints of high school and society, I began as a sophomore or junior attending poetry readings, slams, and open mic’s. Soothing to me was hearing the words of others who embraced their uniqueness, lost their innocence, and clamored for unity. Hearing people rejoice in being Black and proud, strong and female, resolute and vulnerable helped me to realize that I could be constant yet evolving, driven but lost. Poetry and spoken word nestled me when I felt left out in the cold world of uncool; it invited me to a land of verbal decadence as it helped me to dodge the fist of uniformity.
I continued seeking out spoken word and open mic venues constantly following my forays during high school. My first two years of college, I particularly scoped out venues predominantly attended by people of color—not too difficult in Washington DC—or infused heavily with hip hop. Important to me was connecting with others whose personal or cultural histories, experiences or interests overlapped with mine and those who personally and artistically challenged that considered to be the norm.
I wrote poems from time to time and even read one or two aloud at a reading here or there. The high point for me of this era came the day I read a poem to a group of students from the Historically Black Howard University. Frustrated at the low turnout of Howard students at a protest against police brutality—specifically the Amadou Diallo slaying in NYC—I read a poem entitled “And you still won’t join us.” I read aloud less and attended open mics, readings, and slams recreationally less often after that albeit a stint working at the (return of) the Black Rep’s “’Round Midnight.”
The night of August 4th affirmed my instinct: Iyeoka Okoawo is an artist, whose poetry—especially performed—should be sought out more actively and whose name should be passed on with the same earnest as a great recipe. My only regret? That you may have missed a performance in the duration it took for me to express, transfer, and incorporate the bounty of memories and feelings she surfaced into this piece.
Read on for my interview with Iyeoka following her team’s participation in the National Slam. Keep scrolling after that to catch an interview with another August 4 regional poet and National Slam competitor, Worcester, Massachusetts team member Bobby Gibbs.
Brutally honest and forthcoming in a poem revealing the dark, urban reality of his half of the city while poignant in an introspective piece that explores his love of poetry, Bobby—alongside Iyeoka—demonstrates the diversity of the region’s Black poets.
Besides finding out where to hear these two poets on a weekly basis, hear about how an experience like a five day poetry festival and competition affected them, and how for poets deemed as the region’s top performers—and two of six poets of color regionally—an experience like Nationals evoked different emotions and experiences.
Reza Corinne Clifton is a community organizer for RI Children’s Crusade for Higher Education on the Providence High School Redesign project. She is also a freelance writer whose articles can be seen in “The Minority Family Perspective” the Providence American Newspaper and at rezaritesri.com. To contact her, email email@example.com
(RRR): Let’s start out by talking a little about the competition
(IO): Competition was very good, and Lizard Lounge did well. There were 74 teams there; every team plays the first two nights, which determines whose getting to the semifinals. We performed on the first night and beat out 3 or 4 teams. We played the cards right, strategizing on how to deal with judges and deal with teams. The next night we were up against 2 other teams that had also won the night before. This night was difficult just due to the fact that we were up against some powerhouses. We came in 2nd that night edging out one of the teams. But because we got first one night and second the next we made it to semifinals.
[With] semifinals the top 20 teams of the 74 go: 4 bouts, 4 locations around the city. The winners of those bouts go to finals, and there are 5 teams per bout. We didn’t win that one, but we saw some really great performances. It was excellent and very entertaining for all, very cool to be involved with.
(RRR): How long have you been competing, that is doing Slams not just open mics?
(IO): I’ve been on a national team since 2000, and this is my 5th.
(RRR): What keeps you going back?
(IO): It’s an addictive scenario—it’s the spot where you hear the best stuff in the country. I keep coming because it’s where I get my juice and motivation.
During the year, I perform on tour, or perform at Lizard Lunge. At Nationals, there are…it’s almost a convention but not, because you’re competing. You get to hear really good work, it’s high stakes, and it’s a high variety of work. It’s hundreds of different voices. I’ve come to recognize it as a good place to deliver my messages as well hear others. It’s almost like networking by default.
People have different motivations, but you are there with a team, and you are there to compete. And while there if you’re competing against them or if they’re there to see you, then you’re going to get gigs, you’re going to be invited out.
It’s not like you make a lot of money, [and] they can’t necessarily fly you out. If you have a product that you want to get out or if you want to travel, you’ll have a chance. If you do a piece that folks really like, you’ll go to the west coast. But it’s not like now I’m going to support myself. You’re not going to come back with a lot of money, but if you love it, then you will have opportunities. For me, initially, it was a great networking scenario.
At the stage I’m in, I can probably get a gig anywhere. Now it’s just love. You see people pouring out their hearts on stage. And it doesn’t really happen everywhere. The kind of emotion that comes out at Nationals—really only happens once a year.
(RRR): What else do you do besides poetry? Plus how old are you? Where are you from? Where do you live now?
(IO): I work at a pharmacy, I’m from Boston, my parents are Nigerian and I am 30.
(RRR): That was pretty easy. When did you start writing poetry?
(IO): I started writing poetry that I knew I’d perform on stage in 1996. I have always written and had to give speeches and things like that, but poetry since ‘96. In ‘96 I stated writing poetry that I enjoyed reading aloud. There weren’t that many scenes yet for people to get on stage and read. I did a couple of little readings that I would go to every once in a while.
Back in 97, that’s when the Lizard Lounge came around. That’s also when Love Jones came out. The organizers were able use that; they recognized the appeal of the jazz band in the background, etc. So now, when people wanted to see a spot like that, they’d go to Lizard Lounge. Lizard Lounge opened about a month before the movie, though. Around that time I evolved, in going to the Lounge, from small readings to those with jazz backgrounds. It was a culmination of experiences and movement and it was great having that venue as my work evolved.
(RRR): What separates or distinguishes poetry from spoken word?
(IO): Poetry and spoken word are almost the same thing and totally can be interchangeable.
(RRR): But isn’t there some kind of element to spoken word, almost like a performance poetry emphasis?
(IO): If you wanted to call it performance poetry, yeah. It’s not just emphasizing in spoken word, but performance in terms of vocals, body language and stuff.
(RRR): What kinds of themes run through your poetry? When I saw you, you talked about having to accept yourself and reach out to your roots.
(IO): The easiest things to write about are challenges and overcoming challenges. It’s an element that ‘s really a large part of my work. Whether it’s challenges in relationships, society, personal life…a lot of it resonates and evolves out of that. I find that it goes in a direction of overcoming the challenge; first recognizing it and then overcoming it.
(RRR): You said that you’ve been at the national slam competition 5 times now. Was it always with Lizard Lounge? And What other kinds of awards or acclaim have you received?
(IO): My first year, 2000, I went with the [Boston] Cantab Team. I was the grand Slam champ from Cantab. Every year since, I have gone with Lizard Lounge.
So I was the Grand Slam Champ from Cantab, but at Lizard Lounge, there is no official name for the people who win overall to get on teams. 3 out of 4 years I have been the equivalent of that. It’s no big deal that there is no official title, but maybe it’s just me. I have also been awarded the Cambridge Poetry Award, a couple times.
On a personal level, for somebody or for someone just starting out…well for someone who already feels like they have a foot hold in the art…I feel comfortable with the direction I’m going and [with]what I’ve done, so the titles aren’t much.
For someone starting out—that title is more important. That title means, ‘oh he probably is good’ or ‘oh he has beat out some people.’ For people who haven’t had their work heard much, it is a big deal. For me, it’s not such a big deal. It’s kind of an honorable mention.
(RRR): What kinds of support are you receiving, then, in terms of artistic, community, family, media, etc.?
(IO): I don’t think there’s enough support for the art [of poetry]. In terms of poetry and spoken word poetry, it is the kind of thing where you have to search out your own funding, for example. For me, I’ve had a lot of supportive people, to help out and to help with some of my projects. And funding that came and helped with my CD, for instance, has won me more support and some corporate support.
I’ve done a lot of gigs and gone to a lot of posts. One time, I did a Black History gig with Arnold Worldwide, an advertising agency. Volkswagen used to be a client [of theirs], McDonalds…and they do commercials. So they asked me about doing another gig and on that occasion I asked them about sponsoring the work for my CD release party. The reason they said yes was because they have a component of their company interested in community outreach and diversity initiatives. Aiding me helped within the criteria of what they were trying to achieve.
They helped fund my CD release party, bought a lot of CD’s, helped create a video of mine, and helped attract more sponsors. Plus they ended up commissioning a poem for diversity workshop of theirs.
Many times people will ask for support or they’ll hear “I’d like to support you; what can I do to help?” But people don’t respond with anything specific. This relationship really blossomed from my specifically asking them for support for my CD release party. You might be surprised talking to the people with money: a lot of times people and companies do want to help.
This year’s been incredible thanks to them. They shot a video of a poem I performed for a video press packet I was doing. After that shooting, someone else from the agency saw it and said that it would be great if I could do something similar to it for her. I ended up interviewing a bunch of People of color there, and transferred the info into a poem.
(RRR): So you basically asked for specific assistance from them; articulated a very clear need and a bunch of opportunities followed?
(IO): Yes. I articulated the need to people who said they could help in some way…and they did.
(RRR): The website for the National Slam talked about different themed events or gatherings, like those for women, specific ethnicities, hip hop, erotica, etc. Which did you frequent?
(IO): The major side theme I was involved in was different. The organizers of the competition set up a community outreach program, which a few poets participated in.
The poets went out to some High Schools involved in a summer program and basically brought nationals to them. It was really really great. A lot of the kids we saw were the ‘troubled kids’—the ones that get in a lot of trouble dung the year.
The teachers and the students especially really appreciated us really let us know what they got out of it. That’s all I did. Plus I took it easy and hung out the the team a lot.
All the people who make up nationals are a huge variety of individuals. If you belong to a certain group, you do want to allow folks the opportunity to hear what you have to say.
The people who make up nationals are people…we’re the organizers. We do a lot of things, then to make those opportunities available.
(RRR): In talking to another poet, he expressed that one thing about being in a setting with spoken word poets is the element of surprise, in that, you might look around and assume that you know what someone is going to talk about; you kind of pigeon hole them but could then be really surprised at what actually comes out. Is that what you’ve found too, that one thing that ties everyone together is the potential for anyone to just say something completely contrary to what you expect?
(IO): You know, it never occurred to me to pigeon-hole someone in a box. Everyone has the potential to say something or anything.
(RRR): Is there something, though that ties you all together considering how different everyone is?
(IO): At Nationals, I don’t look around and categorize anyone. Everyone there is a poet or an appreciator of poetry. That is the one tie that binds and the one thing that matters.
(RRR): Do you think that there’s a link between Hip Hop and Spoken Word in terms of the future of spoken word? Will it undergo the same commercialization?
(IO): The link that I see is that with hip hop, there was a time when hip hop was an underground situation; the time when hip hop was not mainstream. Poetry now is where Hip Hop was 20 years ago. There are a lot of people into poetry, and a lot of people that aren’t, and once those people hear it or see it, they want to be down.
People are all creative and all writing their own shit. It’s not mainstream yet, but it’s getting there. And it’s probably going to take the same path that hip hop has taken.
(RRR): Does that scare you? I mean some argue that the commercialization and the move into the mainstream of hip hop actually triggered a devaluation of hip hop?
(IO): The perspective I choose to believe in—there’s always going to be truth among the hype; real ones among the fake ones. There are people I’ve had an opportunity to watch, people who are doing it because they believe they should be doing it; that it’s their calling. And if you’re going to be making money doing it, then better. People have to survive, and I have to respect that. It’d be kind of elitist of me. If he goes mainstream, I’m not going to be saying that he isn’t real just cuz he makes money.
I think that things are going to work out; I don’t think that things are going to darken in my eyes. Poets will only become as big as the audience allows us to get. We’re primarily audience-driven, no matter how many CD’s get sold. Getting people out to Lizard and AS220, that’s how it’s going to work. Folks getting into it, talking about it, and getting the word out.
(RRR): So when you’re not on tour, you perform at Lizard Lounge and anywhere else regularly?
(IO): I perform regularly at Lizard Lounge, though it depends on how busy I am. Most Sundays, though, I’m there working on new material.
(RRR): Is there anywhere to find you on the web?
(IO): Yes, at Iyeoka.com.
(RRR): Thank you for this great opportunity, I look forward to seeing you again soon.
(RRR): How old are you? Where are you from? Where do you live now?
(BG): I am 30 years old and I’m Cape Verdian. I’m from New Bedford, I moved at 3, and I have been living in Worcester since?
(RRR): What else do you do besides poetry?
(BG): I work Monday through Thursday, pulling a double on Thursday’s. I work as a senior clinical counselor at a nonprofit that works with kids. It has a number of programs, behavior treatment, and group homes. It’s for children who may need behavior modifications before going to a foster home or kids who have been institutionalized and hospitalized as well as others with less of a background in the system.
And I spend a lot of time with my daughter, Fridays through Sunday.
(RRR): When did you start writing poetry? And what made you start?
(BG): The first time I wrote a poem, or couple lines I was eight. I still have it. I was at my sister’s party and I read it to her; I am 12 years younger than my sister. I really started at 14 or 15. I thought I was a rapper back then. The more I wrote, though, the more I realized that I didn’t’ fit into the structure of lyrics and music. After that, I started writing poetry.
I didn’t get into the slam scene till about 3 years ago. About 5 years ago, I saw the movie “Slam” with Saul Williams. Then I saw Slam Nation, a Documentary on HBO, and I realized that that was what I was doing. Other teachers, like in High School, would tell me that what I wrote wasn’t poetry. It had to follow a specific rule and things. Even my college professor in a poetry class I took seemed taken aback. I was writing about things I saw in my neighborhood that I needed to work through. People would ask me ‘why don’t you write happy pieces?’ He [college professor] questioned me about it.
One day, I started searching for poetry online after seeing those movies. I saw Java Hut in Worcester and I went. This place was right under my nose, right in my neighborhood; I started going regularly.
I feel really loyal, now, to Worcester and Java Hut team and Worcester.
(RRR): How long have you been on the team?
(BG): the first year that I went, they had their Last Chance Slam; if you win then you get a spot on the team. I won my Slam and made it to the finals, but then I came in last. The second year I landed second to last during the finals. During the finals, you’re part of eight and it’s the move down to four that I was losing.
This year is my third year on the team, but it’s the first time I made it to represent Worcester Nationally.
The way it is in Worcester, every month there is a 2 or 3 round slam for 4 months. The top two of each goes to a semifinal (8), then it works down to four. Then it happens again in the spring with 4 ending up. Then in the summer, these two groups battle it out for the final Worcester team.
(RRR): Would you say that your work has changed or evolved since you started then?
(BG): Since going to Java Hut and seeing the live poets, my writing and performance of the writing has evolved, especially with people like John Wolf, Bill McMillen, Corinna Bain, Alex Charalambides—watching their performances and watching their intensity. These are poets I was exposed to early in the scene. It was kind of like wow, they really feel what they do. I need to perform like that because I feel what I do. Eventually I started developing my own style.
Alex was really the first person who came up and introduced himself, who engaged me. He told me I was a hell of a performer and a hell of a poet.
Obviously there’s going to be a wide spectrum of opinions and varieties in Slam, but for the most part—that group of people, that culture of people is the most accepting of any denomination you can think of—religious, sexual, etc. I’ve done poems that people really didn’t feel; I got off stage and they didn’t throw tomatoes, and we talked.
Another thing is that you’ll walk in, scan the crowd and you start pigeon-holing people—assuming things about them. Then you get on stage and they shatter whatever you thought. One person I mean is Iyeoka. One day in the Lizard Lounge we were competing, and I just thought she was this little girl with glasses, practically trembling. Then she got on stage and I was just floored. It was unbelievable. That’s what it is—it keeps you on your toes. Yeah, and there are some times where people will get on stage and do what you expect.
It’s about dialogue, it really is. If everyone thought more like Slam Poets, the world would be a better place. Especially since going to the nationals, the general face seems to be acceptance.
(RRR): Speaking of the Nationals, the website talked about different themed events/gatherings, like those for women, specific ethnicities, hip hop-heavy, erotica, etc. Which did you frequent? And did you frequent those with themes that mirrored your own? To be with other poets like yourself? Or to begin tackling other themes?
(BG): I went to part of a Latin reading and to some African-American readings. I went to a bunch. I went to a nerd slam; a certified nerd would ask a couple a question and whoever answered the question would be able to perform. I couldn’t stay in one place too long, though.
(RRR): Nationally and regionally, who were you really impressed with, but to a certain extent threatened your competitive standing?
(BG): The Worcester team didn’t make it to compete in the semi or finals, but we watched. We met people from all over—Chicago, Oklahoma, people from New Mexico, people from Texas. The Texas contingent was very hospitable. There was Alabama, Atlanta, North Carolina, Vermont…People were from everywhere.
It’s hard to put my finger on just one. There was a woman, Cristibal. And a winner of individual performance, Anise, he was very impressive. His poems were more content than performance. That was one of his things, though. He made co-champion. So many people who were impressive.
(RRR): Is this a debate, content versus performance?
(BG): Content versus performance may be a debate. But content dictates performance. It has to be written well. Even the people who are amateurs get love if it’s well written.
(RRR): So if there’s more emphasis on performance than writing, that person’s a fake or poser?
(BG): You can’t really say posers; if you write then you’re a writer. If they want to perform, then you have to shut the fuck up and listen. If there’s someone new, you should still listen.
(RRR): So in terms of poetry and spoken word, there are no elite, and there is no hierarchy?
(BG): There’s definitely a hierarchy. There are definitely poets recognized as the best of the best. Yeah, there’s definitely a hierarchy, and there’s definitely a small elitism—people who won’t sit through things. There’s a wide spectrum of voices and personalities, and that’s how it should be; positivity, negativity, etc.
(RRR): Is spoken word a Black art (form)?
(BG): In spoken word and poetry, the Black voice is one of the voices, an integral voice. Hip hop is definitely connected to spoken word, and to deny it is dishonest. Whether it is Black art…if you’re going to work out an identity, then work on it. Don’t just take it out of a book. Either way, you have to be real with your shit, and I think that poets are the ones that are real with their shit. Saul Williams, Sage Francis…you just have to be yourself. What I know is that now, I can sit down and write a poem that will milk all the judges, say things about women’s rights, justice…But my pen will go where it’s going to go. If it doesn’t fit into the 3 minute slot, then…I’m not going to write a poem for a Slam. I write, and if it fits into the 3 minutes, if it’s real enough, if it’s emotional enough, I’ll perform it in a Slam. I think that poets who write just for a slam are kind of cheesy. This is just what I see.
(RRR): As you’ve seen in yourself, and in the other poets you encountered, What is the future of spoken word and slams?
(BG): Poetry will be around forever, it’s been there since the creation of man. But over time things evolve.
Slam is gaining momentum. I went to a class once on Modern Poetry and I couldn’t stay: they were talking about poets in the 40’s, and in the 50’s and I was talking about slams and the 2000’s. For a person bored or tired of this, a Slam is rejuvenating. Unless you can’t stand to hear people perform, you’re going to get excited, have hair standing on the back of the neck, etc. It’s like a rollercoaster ride. And that’s why I think it’s gaining momentum. If you see a slam, chances are that you’re going to want to see another one.
Bobby Gibbs performs weekly, on Sundays at the Java Hut in Worcester, Massachusetts. Check him out.