Washington, D.C., is a hub for creative thought and expression through spoken word performances, from low-key open mics every night of the week to exhilarating formal competitions.
Spoken word employs flowing metaphors and mellifluous alliterations to evoke emotions ranging from sorrow to joy. These performances, often based on personal experiences, range across a variety of genres and allow audiences to deeply engage with the language of poetry.
The District brings together poets from across the city and even across the globe, providing the opportunity to share their stories, perspectives and experiences before a live and responsive audience. This oral art form imbues original poetry with the distinct intonation and inflection of its author, creating an experience based on listening and building connections through words.
Emotionally Charged Performances
Busboys and Poets, a hybrid bookstore, restaurant and event space with several locations across D.C., is a notable hub for spoken word, offering both an enjoyable meal and a healing experience through its performances.
Spoken word acts as a multifaceted art form and platform for expression, according to Pages Matam, the director of poetry events for Busboys and Poets.
“The value that it holds as an art form is its blend of theater, of movement, of writing and an emotional spectrum,” Matam said in an interview with The Hoya. “It can also be whimsy, and witty, and out-there.”
Established in 2005, the store’s moniker was inspired by Langston Hughes, a prominent poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Busboys has long hosted a diverse array of spoken word events, ranging from the laid-back and soulful “Sunday Kind of Love” open mic series to the high energy and electrifying “11th Hour” poetry slam.
Free expression and untempered emotion are valuable for building community, according to Matam.
“It’s about creating a space where we can be able to share our experiences, our stories, our thoughts, our emotions, our motivations, in a hopefully concise way and just have dialogue. And that’s what Busboys is about in the first place,” Matam said. “We are a community space that is intentional about creating dialogue through food, through art, through politics, and bringing people together in that way.”
For those interested in engaging with these electric performances, Busboys hosts monthly poetry slams and weekly open mics across their locations. The next slam in Brookland on April 30 will feature award-winning performance artist and author Rudy Francisco.
Spoken word thrives across other locations as well, including the nonprofit The Potter’s House, a cafe, bookstore and event space in Adams Morgan, which opened its doors in 1960. The Potter’s House has found value in hosting poetry performances to create an artistic space for deep conversation, especially with its monthly open mic shows.
Open mic nights provide an opportunity for singers, poets and storytellers to explore methods of communication and develop an appreciation for new perspectives, according to Clara Debnam, events manager at The Potter’s House.
“I personally am trying to make space for individuals to kind of give feedback, or reflect on what was heard, to kind of broaden discussion, broaden people’s mindsets,” Debnam said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “Just so that we can begin to understand each other hopefully better, but recognize that people don’t see the world the same.”
Open mic events can draw a wide variety of performers, ranging widely in both performance format and subject matter, according to Debnam.
“At any given open mic, you can get anything from political, to sexual, to religious. There’s always a mixture,” Debnam said.
Slam is a term for competitive performance poetry, typically judged by five random audience members. Competitors lay down their original works before a responsive and energized audience and are scored with holistic consideration of their performance.
“Slam is the name of a competition. All slam is, is the term for competitive poetry, the same way that you would say a wrestling match,” Matam said.
Matam, a national and regional poetry slam champion himself, hosts the Beltway Poetry Slam at Busboys’ Brookland location. Slam poets compete individually or on a team, and can potentially represent the District at the national and international slam competitions.
Jonathan Tucker, a poet and performer heavily involved with spoken word in D.C., solidified his dedication to performance poetry when he left his job at a law firm to participate in the national slam competition.
Among many of his other roles, Tucker is a poetry host for Busboys’ monthly open mics and also works to foster a sense of community in youth slam poetry.
Tucker co-founded the slam competition Louder Than A Bomb DMV Teen Poetry Festival. The festival, run by Split This Rock and funded by Busboys, the National Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities, centers the creative forces of teenage poets.
Drawing high school participants from D.C., Maryland and Virginia, the event serves both educational and entertainment purposes, according to Busboys. It is also an extension of Tucker’s ongoing commitment to developing creative expression and artistic culture among D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area youth by bringing adult poets to local schools.
“Part of my personal mission was to build a culture of poetry and access to young people. A lot of poetry programs will focus on college or above,” Tucker said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “My big thing was taking that thriving, artistic, creative writing culture that we have at the city at large and bringing those adult poets into the schools, into middle schools, elementary schools, high schools.”
This year’s competition, which will culminate in a final show at the Kennedy Center on April 28, will be moderated by a panel of judges, including South African poets, MoAfrika ‘a Mokgathi and Busisiwe Mahlangu. Both of them have performed spoken word in the District as part of the “Azania to D.C.” poetry exchange facilitated by Tucker.
In both slam competitions and spoken word performances, diverse identities are essential to broadening conversations around individual experiences, according to Tucker.
Going Beyond the Stage
Programs dedicated toward humanitarianism and cultural understanding through artistic expression maintain the District’s standing as a center for creative output. The Potter’s House serves philanthropic causes in the D.C. community through several initiatives.
The “Pay it Forward” program donates 30% of their open mic tickets sales, which helps provide food to those without financial means. Continually looking to support local artists, The Potter’s House also gives $5 to anyone who gets on the mic.
The Recovery Cafe open mic at The Potter’s House has been running for 11 years, and seeks to establish important human connections by giving those affected by addiction a welcoming means of expression and honesty.
In addition to addressing community needs, spoken word provides the space to pause and reflect on internal experiences. Communication and storytelling are important to reach understanding and empathy, according to Debnam.
The emphasis on personal experiences often serves as inspiration for the content of spoken word. Poetry engages with issues of racism, sexism, global issues and various traumas, according to Tucker. Tucker believes poetry and spoken word use language in a way other art forms do not by facilitating the process of personal or emotional healing.
“To give young people the power to name their own realities, to name themselves, to redefine who they are through spoken word, is kind of unique to poetry, because we use the language, and we break the language, and put it back together in a way that suits us,” Tucker said. “It’s important that we take our language back to be able to define the trauma in life, the hurt that we went through.”
In addition to the value of spoken word performances as learning experiences, the real influence of poetry goes far beyond the duration of the performance, according to Debnam.
“It’s not just about what you say and do on stage, the real work is comes in what you say or do off the page,” Debnam said.