Sign of the rhymes: Poetry serves as a medium for change

Crystal Farrington, a junior English major at USM recites her poetry at Bull Feeney's  at 375 Fore St. during a weekly spoken word performance.
Randy Hazelton | The Free Press
Crystal Farrington, a junior English major at USM recites her poetry at Bull Feeney's at 375 Fore St. during a weekly spoken word performance.

Posted on April 07, 2014 in Arts & Culture
By Francis Flisiuk

Randy Hazelton | The Free Press

Poetry reading has evolved from coffeehouses and dusty leather bound books into packed bars, snapping fingers and vocal performance pieces with powerful messages.

No longer is poetry culture limited by cliche love stories, strict organization and clever rhymes. Poetry in today’s age, specifically slam poetry, has developed into an artistic medium that facilitates personal development and social change through emotional narratives.

Slam poetry combines recital with a little competition for a performance that is all about spreading knowledge and enacting change through the power of expression. Social activism is one of the most important aspects of slam poetry according to Keely Kenney, a poet and board member of Port Veritas, a local non-profit that schedules weekly poetry competitions and workshops at Bull Feeney’s.

“My favorite performers are the ones that use spoken word to get sensitive messages across and stimulate progress. They use their time in the spotlight wisely,” said Kenney. “You [the poet] have got our attention; say something that matters.”

Using words, gestures, shifting vocal tones and real emotion, slam poets ignite audiences by talking about controversial social issues in an entertaining and digestible way. According to Ellyn Touchette a performance poet and sophomore English and Biology major at USM, spoken word poetry is a platform that extends far beyond just being creatively expressive and more into being socially progressive.

“It’s [slam poetry] a soapbox to bring very sensitive socio-political issues to the forefront,” said Touchette. “A lot of performers will use poetry as an outlet to make big grand statements about their political frustrations.”

By using the spoken word as a means of delivery, poets get audiences thinking and asking questions about a myriad of social and personal issues like gun violence, gay rights, race, body image, poverty and equality just to name a few. And if the audience feels particularly passionate about a specific topic, then they show their admiration not by applause but by snapping their fingers.
Touchette says, slam poetry is a totally different experience than just reading a poem out of a book. A successful slam poet relies on a connection with the audience. Through this connection, creative storytelling and a unique delivery, a slam poet can convey thoughts and ideas to an audience member in extremely resonating ways.

“A lot of my work contains a strong personal narrative,” said Touchette. “I describe a small snapshot of my life and then relate it to a bigger issue.”

The themes featured in Touchette’s poetry are universal messages of equality and acceptance. According to Touchette poetry can be comforting and rewarding for both the poet and the audience.
“The resounding theme in my poetry is that you (the audience) are not alone,” said Touchette. “Whatever you are dealing with, someone somewhere in this world is experiencing that same trouble. Through this connection we can make the world better.”

Apart from offering a new perspective on controversial topics, slam poets themselves can greatly benefit from the power of the spoken word and the act of performing their work in general. According to Touchette many poets perform their written work as a way to share and combat deeply personal issues and negative thoughts. “Poetry is a way for me to deal with my own personal issues,” said Touchette. “I try to make it a medium for expressing my reality.”

Touchette added that openly talking about personal struggles with love, death and loneliness to a crowd of strangers through an art form can act as a unique and necessary form of therapy. And the poets that bare all and expose the most personal dispositions are often the ones met with most support from the audience.

For Crystal Farrington, a poet and junior English major at USM, performing her written prose at Bull Feeney’s on Tuesday nights is a way for her to truly express herself. According to Farrington she values her time on stage as a way to purge out negative thoughts and reach some understanding about sensitive topics.“When I have a thought that is too hard or emotional to keep inside my head, I write it down and eventually share it with an audience,” said Farrington. “I have many emotions that need to be represented in my poetry.”

Farrington also mentioned that her beginnings in poetry included a lot of sweet poems about love, her admiration for Maine and the affection she shared with her boyfriend, but that needed to change. She felt stuck writing about such cliche topics and wanted to use poetry to express who she really is.

“I’ve been trying very hard to showcase my other emotions in my poetry,” said Farrington. “There’s an ugly side to everyone, and sometimes the dark and twisted stuff comes out the most beautiful in poetry.”

Will Gibson, a frequent performer at Port Veritas and lifelong artist even used poetry to get out of homelessness and drug addiction. What started as a street side bid for pocket change soon developed into a full fledged profession. According to Gibson, poetry forced him to push himself.
“I don’t think I would’ve made it this far in life if it wasn’t for poetry,” said Gibson. “I used it to become a better person.”

What started in Chicago in the 80s has now exploded into an art form performed around the world. There are slam poetry competitions all over the country as well as a national event held every year in a different U.S. city, featuring competitors from America, Canada and France. On the local scene there are weekly performances at Dobra Tea and Bull Feeney’s, brought to you by Rhythmic Cypher and Port Veritas, respectively. Seeing as April is National Poetry Month, this will be the most active time for slam poetry, and, furthermore, for social activism and personal development through spoken word.

“Poetry is the word of the people,” said Farrington. “It’s everything I’ve always wanted to say and everything my generation needs to hear.”