My metal plates feel like fire
These are my hands
When I place my palms together
and hold them tight
it looks as if I am praying
beseeching for you
With my pious hands
I can make your hair silky straight
The only sound
Is that singe
The only smell
Is that burnt
No more frizz
Unless the humidity coughs on you. I will burn your beautiful brown skin
It will sting for a long time
I would be sorry that I burned you
But you use me every day
To get that hair that you weren’t born with.
— “An Open Letter from my Flat Iron to 14 year old me”
by Angela Williams (COL ’17)
Angela Williams (COL ’17) has not always been a poet. Though she often journaled in high school, it was not until her sophomore year, when she attended a meeting of Corpus Collective, Georgetown’s only spoken word poetry community, that she became engaged in the art form. At first, it started off as a hobby. To Williams, spoken word was a new way to explore her creativity and meet other like-minded artists. Then, it became something more.
“I do spoken word to give affirmation to other people, especially to other black women, because there are so many of these places where we feel silenced by systems of oppression,” Williams said. “I use my poetry as a platform to share my narrative, to share my truth in the hopes that resonates with another sister. It’s very important that we support each other, and I know that part of my reason on this earth is to provide support and mentorship to black women, younger and older, who need it.”
I want to write you a love poem… / But I can’t / and I’m not sure I know what love is anymore not even sure about like-like either / But going through some stuff the other day / I found a letter to myself from seven-year-old me / I gave myself some advice and maybe it can help me out / Maybe it can tell you what I’m trying this in case you forgot stuff from when you were seven, because sometimes it’s hard to remember things to say / “Dear me, it’s you / How are you, whatcha doing? / I am seven, and you are older / I am writing this in case you forgot the stuff from when you were seven, because sometimes it’s hard to remember things / Never forget what your Oreos can do / They show a girlthat she’s special / Because no one gives her Oreos at lunch / And because everyone loves Oreos / But be careful, because some people will use you for your Oreos / Like Jackie yesterday – who got more than half of them yesterday but then said you are just a nerd and she doesn’t like you.
— from “Oreos” by Daniel Ernst (COL ’18)
Daniel Ernst (COL ’18) first began writing love letters, many of which went undelivered, to his middle school crushes. But there is one day in particular — Daniel has the exact date written down in his phone — which really sparked everything for him.
“On the second Tuesday of September 2010, a man and a woman came into my English class at sometime between 10:45 and 11:45 and offered to perform for us,” Ernst said. “They were alumni. … They later started hosting an open mic at a coffee shop downtown. They showcased their art, invited us to come, and I went the next week and just kept going. I’ve been doing it for over five years now.”
Ernst struggled to find his place at Georgetown after leaving his vibrant high school spoken word community. Then, he discovered Corpus and other campus and D.C. events, and he found a community he did not expect to find.
The spoken word community at Georgetown is small, but growing, according to Ernst and Williams. Corpus Collective has around 25 members, and although it is the only club on campus dedicated to spoken word specifically, other campus groups host events and provide opportunities for spoken word performances. Saxa Slam, a free and public spoken word competition inviting student poets to perform two pieces before a panel of judges, is centered around a different theme each year it is held by Georgetown Leaders in Education about Diversity in Bulldog Alley. Last year’s March event, called “Why We March,” amassed a crowd of more than 200.
At last weekend’s Mr. Georgetown Pageant, winner Walter Kelly (COL ’15) received a perfect score in the talent competition for a spoken word performance. Each month, the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice hosts a reading from an acclaimed poet in the Copley Formal Lounge.
Williams said she and Ernst hope to make the spoken word community more visible on campus through Corpus Collective with events such as open mic nights, weekly spoken word workshops and competitions. The group has partnered with Students of Georgetown, Inc. for future open mic nights, usually held in Uncommon Grounds. They also hope to co-sponsor an event with GU Pride and collaborate with Health Education Services on an event focused on sexual assault. The group also competes nationally every year against other college slam teams at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.
“We decided we were going to bring Corpus alive and bring it from the shadows in order to have a real, live spoken word community here because that’s something what we feel needs to happen,” Williams said. “People need to share their narrative to add to diversity on campus because a lot of times the spoken world realm is really dominated by people who are systematically oppressed.”
Corpus Collective is now in the process of becoming a fully recognized club. Ernst said that once it has access to university funding, it hopes to continue to grow by hosting more events and entering more competitions.
“It’s a stage for voices that don’t usually get heard,” Ernst said.
Student spoken word artists also leave campus to perform in the vibrant D.C. poetry community. Ernst, specifically, has begun to perform at local restaurants and coffee shops. On Jan. 28, he will perform as a spotlighted poet at the Busboys and Poets in Hyattsville, Md., and Feb. 8, he will perform as a featured poet — meaning he will be paid $100 — at the Busboys and Poets in Brookland.
Busboys and Poets, a popular eatery, bookstore and lounge with multiple locations, provides a number of D.C.’s emerging artists and writers their first platforms, and has been frequented, or hosted, by the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Al Franken and Keri Hilson. The cafe, which hosts the overwhelming majority of poetry readings and performances in the area, has five locations all over D.C., Virginia and Maryland and hosts open mic nights every week. The Busboys on 14th Street hosts open mic nights every Tuesday from 9 to 11 p.m., and the Busboys on 5th and K streets hosts them every Wednesday from 9 to 11 p.m.
Poetics and Academics
Although Georgetown professors do not teach a specific class on spoken word or slam poetry, the art form has been integrated into the curriculum by many professors for its historical and artistic significance, including within classes examining contemporary, experimental and African-American poetry as well as poetry-writing classes.
While the oral traditions of various global cultures have been around since the beginning of language itself, our contemporary American conception of spoken word comes from the Harlem Renaissance, which took place from the 1920s through the 1930s. It was an artistic and cultural movement for blacks who sought to defy a society that demeaned them and to instead produce a new culture — a new identity for blacks to feel proud of. From Langston Hughes’ famous work “A Dream Deferred” (also known as “Harlem”) to James Weldon Johnson’s “Go Down, Death,” these works brought black art to the forefront of literary criticism and culture, and the legacy of this movement is influential even today in our contemporary literature.
“Poetry is attention in the form of language, and according to the mystics, ‘attention is the natural prayer of the human soul.’ Poetry is the oldest of the arts. It is how we know the interior life of humans in the past, and it is how the human future will know us,” poet Carolyn Forché, director of Georgetown’s Lannan Center, said.
The Lannan Center, which is housed in the Office of the President, brings various poets and prose writers to campus throughout the semester for readings and talks, hosts a poetry symposium and offers a seminar class for around 30 students each spring. In class, the Lannan Fellow students discuss contemporary poetry and share their own work, which is occasionally in the form of spoken word.
“Although we do not have formal programs of study in creative writing at Georgetown, the literary arts flourish on our campus,” Forché said. “Not only do we have an impressive roster of faculty poets and writers, but also a number of student groups, including slam and performance artists. Something is going on every week. The audiences are growing and are very enthusiastic. This is an exciting time.”
Lannan Fellow Michael Sobalvarro (COL ’15), a spoken word poet, took the Lannan Seminar to learn more about the craft. He became interested in spoken word in high school after reading the work of rapper Tupac Shakur. He was so interested in the craft that every one of his personal statements written for college admissions took the form of spoken word poems. During his early days at Georgetown, Sobalvarro and several other students helped found The Corpus Collective in 2011. Sobalvarro, however, took a year and a half off school and did not reconnect with the group after his return.
He does, however, still write spoken-word poetry, often using it as a method of expressing his own personal difficulties. In one poem he recalls the experience of going to Nicaragua to visit his father, who at the time was a prominent drug lord in the country.
“I like revisiting those old traumas and presenting them in a way one may have never thought of, almost mystifying it,” Sobalvarro said.
An Emotional Release
For Sobalvarro and many other student spoken word poets, the art form is a deeply emotional and transformative endeavor.
“I feel like the most intimate form of contact a human can have is a conversation. A conversation between you and your mother, or you and your friend late at night, or you and your girlfriend,” Sobalvarro said. “That’s all just raw emotion and thought, and that’s really what spoken word is.”
To spoken word poet and Corpus member Eileen Cahill (COL ’18), who first began writing in high school, the form allows her to explore personal struggles.
“I was going through a rough time … dealing with academic stress, pressure to conform to standards of beauty and femininity and dealing with a depressive state,” Cahill said. “I found that the best way to convey my confusion and views on pressure and conforming was through performing my work for my peers.”
“Spring / Once a whisper / Proclaims itself / From whisp upon whorl packed as tight / as sugar cubes. / The lunatic left one lick / And she resolved the rigid lines / Dissolved from darker times.
And spring, / Once a whisper / Now a shout / Warms a lazy bayou / With a discarded scarecrow / And unplugged Santa figures / Finally floating away. / Old women sit cross-legged / With straw hanging from their gnarled lips / And self-inflicted scars on their battered hips / Laughing with their entire body / Shooting arrows in the velvet breeze /Love pours into buckets from their hazel eyes /Held by brown-eyed children /Meant to warm the world.”
— from “Audio for Spring” by Eileen Cahill (COL ’18).