Snapping, crying, shouting and, if they weren’t bolted to the ground, throwing some chairs onto the stage. Speaking to a packed Dana Auditorium, award-winning performance poet Joshua Bennett invited an audience of over 300 students, faculty and Middlebury community members to react actively and honestly to the spoken word performance they were about to encounter.
“This is that kind of space for expressive freedom,” Bennett reassured them. Last Friday night, three members of New York-based artist collective, the Striver’s Row, and two-time Individual World Poetry Slam Champion Buddy Wakefield performed in collaboration for the first time in an event simply titled, “Buddy Meets the Striver’s.”
The event, organized by Barbara Ofosu-Somuah ’13 and Maya Goldberg-Safir ’12.5, has been over a year in the making. After the success of the Night Kite Revival spoken word show in January 2011 which featured Buddy Wakefield, Ofosu-Somuah, a coordinator of spoken word open mic night Verbal Onslaught, wanted to start a tradition of having well-known spoken word artists perform at Middlebury College every year.
“After the Night Kite Revival happened two years ago and seeing how Poor Form Poetry and Verbal kind of took off after the event we thought that having something this profound happen once a year would be a way to not only rejuvenate artistic expression, but emotional expression on campus as well,” Ofosu-Somuah explained.
However, due to booking complications with the Striver’s Row in the fall, a winter term class in New York and a spring semester abroad in Italy, the show was moved to the following year. To further complicate matters, once Ofosu-Somuah had finally booked the group to perform during winter term, MCAB’s Fun. concert was rescheduled for the same date. After a full year and a half of rescheduling and planning, the group was set for the spring and it was by chance that Goldberg-Safir ’12.5, a founding member of spoken word poetry group Poor Form Poetry, had planned Buddy Wakefield’s return to campus for the same weekend.
Once the two joined forces, their final obstacle was coming up with a total of $5,414 to fund the event. Throughout winter break and winter term, they emailed academic departments, attended Commons Council meetings and met one-on-one with different administrative heads. Looking at the poster, one can see a huge block of text under “Sponsored by” ranging from MCAB Social Committee to even the economics department.
“We ended up getting money from 10 or 11 different funding sources which is more than … usual,” Ofosu-Somuah said. “I would say that it should be easier to put this on.”
“There should be funding available so that students don’t have to like scrape it together every year, but will have enough through a few departments like MCAB Social, Dean of Students Office and the budget of Verbal Onslaught and Poor Form Poetry,” Goldberg-Safir added.
However frustrating the process must have been, there is no doubt that their perseverance paid off with resounding success. By 7:15 p.m. (with the event at 8 p.m.) a line of about 30 people could be seen outside of Dana Auditorium hoping to buy tickets, despite that the show was sold out.
“And I think it went up to about 40,” added Ofosu-Somuah, “so we let 40 people in with a capacity of 275 and we told them to just be inconspicuous and sit on the floor.”
After Ofosu-Somuah and Goldberg-Safir introduced the show with their long list of thank you’s to all the sponsors, two student poets and one poet from the greater Middlebury community opened the show. The two student performers demonstrated the amazing talent and diversity of style we, as a community, are fortunate to have — from newcomer Debanjan Roychoudhury ’16’s confident and hard-hitting rap (“If you hear something you like, just make noise”) to Poor Form poet Bella Tudisco’s ’13.5 poignant elegy for her mother with sweetly delivered French love songs that tugged on the heart strings of members of the audience. A surprising addition was Ola Tundji, a member of the town of Middlebury and regular at Verbal Onslaught.
“Having Ola join was a way to remind students and myself that we are not isolated and we are not separate from the town. We are a part of this really big microcosm and it’s not just us and them – it’s all of us together,” Ofosu-Somuah explained.
Seeing members from our own community, vulnerable and talented on stage, provided the perfect introduction to the performances of the Striver’s Row and Wakefield.
The first to perform from the Striver’s Row was Joshua Bennett, original organizer of the collective and currently a graduate student at Princeton University. Standing alone on the large auditorium stage in a collegiate red polo, skinny trousers and moccasin boots, he opened on the most relatable topic on a college campus: unrequited love.
“Dear really cute girl with a boyfriend that I suspect only loves you half as much as I could given the proper chance … Hello,” he began. Immediately the audience was disarmed with his smile and boyish charm that could seamlessly transform into a deeply pained anxiety rushing to come out of his mouth in poetic form.
Up next was Miles Hodges, who, at 21, is the youngest of the three and still an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. With light eyes and soft features, Hodges’s “pretty-boy” appearance held a strong tension with his poems on masculinity. Introducing a poem, his voice was soft, but the moment he performed, it was as if the poem itself had granted him a sort of swagger on stage. It seemed as if each poem carried so much weight that he couldn’t even make it to the end, always signing off with a quick “Peace, thank you” as he escaped the stage.
The last member of the Striver’s Row to perform was Alysia Harris, a graduate student at Yale. With a silver sequin top and a bounce in her step as she walked on stage, Harris stopped at the mic and flashed smile that illuminated the crowd, then delivered a cheery “Hi!” that made us feel at home. Harris opened with what she described as an “Erotica Poem.” However, rather than a poem that exalted human sexuality or lamented an empty morning-after, there was nothing straight-forward about it. This could be said of all the poetry from the Striver’s Row. Each moment of sadness in their poems was lined with an understanding of the room it made for joy and each moment of joy held an understanding that it sprung out of a moment of sadness.
Bennett’s charming love poem to his girlfriend came out of “a career of painful romances.” Hodges’s understanding of his masculinity came from his experiences being sensitive, vulnerable and sometimes weak.
“For me, it’s like grief teaches us how to be human,” Harris explained after the show. “Not only how to be a fuller human being and realize a fuller humanity, but I think realize a deeper joy … Like I cry harder than anyone I know, but I also laugh harder than anyone and that’s a fine price to pay, I think.”
Following the first three poems was Buddy Wakefield. A veteran of the Middlebury spoken-word scene and probably the most well known out of the entire ensemble, the crowd welcomed Wakefield to the stage with huge applause. Playing nervous, Wakefield humbled himself with self-deprecating humor about his age and appearance (“a cross between Bruce Willis and Charlie Brown”) as he stood in front of “a room full of self-declared old souls in juvenile clothes.” Compared with the members of the Striver’s Row,
Wakefield had a strikingly different approach to his performance. Each time he came up on stage, he would begin by delivering a monologue that at times verged on crude stand-up. However, this routine would transform into a very elaborative presentation on themes of life, love, death and the notion of “tragedy” that surrounds them all. Out of this came his poetry. Wakefield’s major theme was for the audience to “let go.” Whether it was heartbreak (“Hearts don’t break, ya’ll. They bruise and get better.”) or the loss of a loved one (“Let them go. Gracefully. They’ve already been through enough misery.”), Wakefield emphasized the fact that loss, when viewed in a different light, is not “tragic” at all.
What was most beautiful to see on Friday night was not any one single poem, but the dialogue between the poems that was happening live on stage. Wakefield and the Striver’s had met only 30 minutes before the show.
“We didn’t give them any requirements at all,” Ofosu-Somuah explained. “We just told them you’ll have three openers and to just be done by 10:30 and they were like ‘OK, we’ve got this.’”
A particular highlight was when Harris got on stage for the last time and asked that the audience excuse her if she forgot a few lines in the next poem, “11 Apologies.” She hadn’t performed it in years, but was inspired to bring it out that particular night due to Wakefield’s poem on forgiveness.
“One of the things that really got me,” Harris explained, “was when he said, ‘Forgiveness is for anyone who needs safe passage through your mind.’ And, I’m dealing with a break-up, and I wasn’t thinking of all the ways in my mind how I attach names to him – and just, ah, the poem about “making a big to-do out of the emptiness between us” and like a tuba and like playing out that melody – like how many times in the last two months have I played out the same song, the same tragedy.”
Harris’s moment of emotional epiphany listening to Wakefield’s poetry during her own show gets to the heart of why Ofosu-Somuah and Goldberg-Safir fought so hard to make this event happen on campus and why they feel it needs to become a tradition every year. In an intensely academic institution that also serves as a residential campus, where is the venue for us to reflect on our emotional selves?
“Poets, especially spoken-word poets, live their lives being vulnerable and in a way that makes it comfortable for others to embrace their vulnerability,” said Ofosu-Somuah. “I think Middlebury students get caught up in pretending to be ‘OK’ or being busy or being innovative or doing whatever without taking a moment to reflect on how they feel and so I think for whoever came to the show, this was an opportunity for them to just listen to themselves for a little bit and see where they are on an emotional spectrum.”
During the show, it seemed the audience did just that as there was a totally different type of crowd, eager to snap in agreement, shout in celebration and even occasionally moan in heat. Walking out of that “space for expressive freedom,” the powerful energy that marked the event had transformed into an emotionally potent tranquility between all the students, faculty and community members. Not only did it seem that the audience became in touch with themselves – they also became in touch with the others around them.