“Calling all poets and visionaries,” read the post on Instagram. It was a Saturday, and my friend and I had taken a trip to New York to explore for the weekend. She had been scrolling through her feed when she found the post on one of those creative, feminist, empowerment accounts (you know the type). They were having their first spoken word event and they wanted anyone who had a penchant for poetry or opinions to come along.
So, of course, what else do you do on a Saturday night in New York? We navigated our way to a cafe tucked into the side streets of Brooklyn, hidden behind a long green hallway and a door covered in mistletoe. Inside, the air was warm and buzzing. The room was filled with familiar chatter, everyone waiting to listen, perform, and make a temporary space in their lives for spoken word poetry.
Poetry has its roots in oral performance. Before poems could even be written down, people composed verses that were memorized and passed on through generations. Many of the poets we venerate today (such as Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot) believed in the importance of oral expression, often writing their poems with verbal rhythms in mind. When you listen to spoken word, it is not hard to understand why. The poems adopt so many more nuances: sounds and rhythm and facial expressions add new layers of meaning that move the listener in a far more visceral way.
The spoken word movement in America gained momentum in 1990 with the establishment of the first poetry slam competition in San Francisco. It quickly travelled across the country, setting up roots in the famous Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York. Hundreds of poets began to gather at competitions, and countless videos surfaced on online channels. The movement has only grown in popularity since; now, spoken word poetry lives both in small, dimly lit cafes and on a world stage.
Spoken word is far more than a medium of expression: it’s a movement for social change. Poetry communities give people a platform to voice ideas that may not otherwise be heard. LGBTQI rights, feminism, race relations, mental health – all of these find a home in spoken word. There’s something incredibly powerful about people sharing their experiences through this medium. You get a stream-of-consciousness glimpse into the most personal, raw thoughts of the poet. Emotion drives the performances, giving you the unquestionable reassurance that no matter what problems you are facing, you are not alone.
Spoken word has the power to inspire, to remind you how lucky you are to be alive, or to make your heart beat to the same rhythm as those who are suffering.
As I stood in the small cafe room surrounded by people letting me see past their barriers, I felt inextricably part of something. We were weaving a support structure with our words, and though we may not have been changing the world right in that moment, we were sowing seeds with our open and unashamed dialogue about self-image, religion, relationships, the environment, and a myriad of other ideas. It reminded me why spoken word has been so influential for me. It has allowed me to understand myself better, to feel confident sharing my voice, and to empathize with others. Spoken word requires you to be intensely vulnerable, and the connections I have formed as a result have been incredibly rewarding.
With that said, I wanted to offer a collection of some of the most moving spoken word poems I’ve watched. They offer raw insight into the lives of the poets while building momentum for broader social issues and encouraging you to think about things just a little bit differently. Some of them are confronting, some are uncomfortable, but all of them are inspiring.
Shrinking Women – Lily Myers
“I asked 5 questions in Genetics class today and all of them started with the word sorry.”
Lily Myers’ poem was a sensation when she first performed it. It is a frank and confronting portrayal of the behaviors society expects of women. Her language is beautiful, filled with metaphors and imagery, and peppered with all too familiar personal anecdotes.
OCD – Neil Hilborn
“Now, I just think about who else is kissing her. I can’t breath because he only kisses her once – he doesn’t care if it’s perfect.”
This is absolutely one of the most moving poems I have heard. With a story crafted with little details, Neil Hilborn manages to capture the essence of love and paint a heart-rending picture of life with OCD. This is one of those poems you don’t forget.
Pretty – Katie Makkai
“This is about women who will prowl the 35 stores and 6 malls to find the right cocktail dress but who haven’t a clue how to find fulfilment or where to find joy.”
Katie Makkai is a renowned poet whose work often touches on her struggle for self-worth and identity. Her poem, ‘Pretty,’ draws on her own experiences as a child and is an emotional expression of her frustration at the expectation to be beautiful.
Repetition – Phil Kaye
“You watch the sunset too often, it just becomes 6pm. You make the same mistake over and over, you stop calling it a mistake.”
Phil Kaye is a prominent figure in spoken word. He has an ability to weave stories that draw the listeners into every word. This poem is incredibly clever, and it has a subtle meaning that sneaks into your mind and hits you hard once you realize what he is saying.
What Teachers Make – Taylor Mali
“I make parents see their children for who they are and can be.”
With this humorous poem, Taylor Mali makes a stand against the conception that ‘those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach’. He fights for the value of his work in a way that leaves you with a newfound respect for teachers.
Pocket-Sized Feminism – Blythe Baird
“This house is for wallpaper women, and what good is wallpaper that speaks?”
Blythe Baird’s poems are all incredibly vulnerable, an expression of her experiences with sexual assault and eating disorders. This poem will leave you yearning to do more to help people who have undergone the sort of trauma she has.
Dear Straight People – Denice Frohman
“Hate is alive and well in too many lunchrooms, taught in the silence of too many teachers.”
Humorous yet incisively frank, Denice Frohman shares a series of messages to straight people. While not necessarily politically correct, she touches on a lot of important issues regarding sexuality and makes you consider a different perspective.
Trigger Warning – Karina Stow
“How do you prove fear? How do you put months of held breaths and will you please come with me and he will kill me trigger he will kill me trigger he will kill me”
Karina Stow’s poem is perhaps the most hard-hitting and confronting poem on this list. It gives a frightening glimpse into life after an abusive relationship. Her bravery in sharing this is truly admirable and moving.