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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.
The artists who make up the local spoken-word community represent the present landscape of Chattanooga, as well as the direction the city is heading. There is a stunningly varied array of voices here whose works are both enthralling and brave, and they are offering valuable and distinct artistic perspectives. For instance, there are currently more open and active LGBT spoken-word artists in the area than ever before. While the Scenic City remains a very conservative place, this fact alone is indicative of how some of the cultural leanings are shifting into more accepting and progressive territory.
As a whole, spoken-word is still largely considered to be a new art form. But, over the past 17 years, it’s become more of a legitimate art form nationally. What’s interesting to note about this is that the oral tradition of reciting songs, stories, and poems is actually a great deal older than written language. However, everything in life is truly cyclical, and, if enough time passes, old standards tend to get rediscovered, re-branded with renewed fervor, and become new again.
Given that the national understanding and appreciation of the art is evolving, Chattanooga has much to be proud of, and should be immensely optimistic about the future cultivation of the craft. A good number of our spoken-word artists are doing great work that should inspire anyone who has a pen, a voice, and enough drive to bring their passion to fruition. Storyteller Jim Pfitzer has been touring his Aldo Leopold show all across the country. A story slam has been taking place for more than six months where participants tell stories in five minutes, and a winner is declared at the end of the night. I recently finished a spoken-word EP.
The South has always given its wordsmiths their share of material. If you are a Southerner, there are words resting in your throats. More and more people in our city are realizing this, and on any stage, on any given night, they are stepping behind microphones, opening their mouths, and allowing their voices to sing.