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There’s a certain feeling that washes over you when you set foot onto a stage, position yourself behind a microphone, look out into the faces of the people in an audience, and just let go. How does it feel to use your voice, body, and words to transport a crowd to wherever you wish them to go? In a word, amazing.
I know this because for more than 12 years now, this is what I have been fortunate to do. My start as a performance poet and spoken-word artist came when I was just 17, and that first experience in May of 2001 truly changed my life. It just so happened to have occurred in (of all places) a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Chattanooga, TN.
While the Scenic City is far from being an arts hub of the stature of New York or Chicago, it is becoming more and more known for its arts community. During the past four years, the local spoken-word scene has grown and diversified, giving both storytellers and poets further opportunities to network, present their talents, and become a genuine artistic community.
In the summer of 2009, I had the opportunity to start a weekly poetry/spoken-word open-mic called The Speakeasy. I honestly had no idea what to expect, or who, for that matter, would attend. To my pleasant surprise, each week we had writers and performers from all across the board come out: teenagers, grandparents, gays, straights, gangstas, emcees, academic poets—you name it. I learned very quickly that Chattanooga had a unique, diverse population of authors who, regardless of class, race or gender, desired the same thing—to be heard and to hear others.
Since then, I’ve witnessed a wealth of camaraderie in the local spoken-word scene. It’s quite common to catch the same poet or storyteller who blew you away at one show seated in the audience at another simply showing support. I asked Marsha Mills, known as the Poetic Diva, and who is also the current president of the Rhyme-N-Chatt Interactive Poetry Organization, what drew her in to performing her works publicly, and her response is indicative of the way a number of local writers feel.
She told me, “I got involved because I enjoyed being around people who were like me. For years, I wrote poetry and had no platform in which to share it. Rhyme-N-Chatt gave me and others that opportunity, and I wanted others to find out about it and get involved.”
One of the primary elements at the heart of Chattanooga’s spoken-word community is just that—involvement. For those who have never been to a slam or any kind of show where poets recite, you probably assume that the cliches of finger snaps and faux-Beatnik cool prevail. However, that it is not the case. We have come a long way from there, dear friends. For people actively in the scene who write and perform, it is all about being involved on a deeper level and sharing, not just the art, but their individual stories and truths.
Connection also plays a vital role in the equation. The local spoken-word community is still growing and developing, which means that a lot of people who have never experienced anything like it are slowly, but surely, being indoctrinated. I have repeatedly seen people get drawn in by someone’s performance and moved by it. They are connecting with the words and reacting to them.
In 2010, I started the MANIFEST series, which was a monthly event whose primary goal was to provide a large outlet for artists to perform, network, and further promote themselves. Many of the shows that I organized were based in the world of spoken-word. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed over the past few years has been watching poets who are just beginning to find themselves on the stage become both more confident and comfortable. To see the sheer joy, excitement, and exhaustion in their bodies after a lively performance is always gratifying, because they have truly connected to the essence of their work. They are not just artificially telling the audience about their triumphs, failures, and struggles. Rather, they are actually reliving those things, experiencing those feelings anew, and taking the crowd along on the journey with them.