Controversial spoken word poetry engages

Last Wednesday, Lenelle Moïse’s spoken word performance was perfectly suited to cozy Goodrich Hall, in contrast to the snow flurries outside that evening. Claiming Williams sponsored the event, and, judging by Moïse’s performance, rightly so. She explained that she was excited to come to Williams and “talk about things they tell us not to talk about.”

The use of “us” in that statement mirrors a trend that Moïse developed throughout the night: including the audience in her show. Before sharing any work, Moïse told the audience that, as a Haitian-American, she would ask for permission before telling a story. When she asked “krik?” the audience was to respond “krak!” This was a signal of attention as well as the desire to hear what Moïse had to say. The “Krik? Krak!” became as integral a part of the performance as was Moïse’s very presence. Though she blatantly spoke on issues such as immigration, racism and the Bush administration, she didn’t force her opinions on the audience. Rather, she made sure that the audience wanted to listen.

Moïse shared pieces that ranged from essays to songs to handwritten “personal manifestos.” The variety of sources allowed the audience to feel as if they were getting bits and pieces of Moïse’s life, but all for the sake of gaining a complete picture, rather than a fragmented one.

Moïse began with a poem about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, during which the audience stamped their feet to a slow beat. “How fast can our feet run?” Moïse asked, emphasizing how many people were trapped in New Orleans, unable to escape. “The living wade with countless dead while the president flies overhead,” she proclaimed.

In the essay “Children of Immigrants,” Moïse spoke about the role she played as a child whose parents immigrated to the United States from Haiti. Her intellect and perception caused her to help a family that coped with the transition from middle-class Haitians to struggling Americans. “Children of immigrants don’t get to be children,” she said. In so doing, Moïse suggested that she has had the role of being a leader for many years. It was a bold revelation, delivered humbly.

After this discussion on her childhood, the audience witnessed Moïse grow older through her other pieces. One poem documented the friendship Moïse had with a Dominican named Roxy during her youth. Both girls lived in the same building with immigrant parents who didn’t allow them to go outside and play. In one recollection, Moïse said that “she hates me because I am her mirror: trapped and brown.” When words wouldn’t work, the friends communicated with each other through gestures like eye-rolling.

Moïse reenacted the excitement she felt in another poem when her mother finally allowed her to go to the playground. What resulted was a playground bully who was holding crack beat up Moïse just because the bully was bored.

In high school, Moïse developed a thicker skin. She learned how to use writing to defend herself against injustices she faced in school. Her skill at using words to evoke strong emotions in her audience permeated the show and was most easily understood in the poem “Cynicism Day.” She critiqued the Bush administration by comparing the things it has chosen to focus on in comparison to the things it has ignored. “Say something about liberty so you can get your oil,” she said, while the administration ignores the conditions of U.S. prisons, the quality of tap water and the civilian death toll in Iraq.

Moïse was not afraid of letting the audience see the contradictions in her character. For one, she was both outspoken and nervous, with a tentative laugh. She responded well to the approving shouts of “what!” from the audience and the shuffles of feet as people left her show early.

Moïse offers a middle ground for us as college students. She is a living testament to the ability to be rebellious and intelligent without being too self-absorbed to relate to the people around her. During a question and answer session after the show, Moïse accredited her family’s support to her successful poetry. One uncle’s advice has been that “a poem is not finished until you share it.” And sharing is something Moïse does with enthusiasm and skill. She will continue to share with Williams when she returns for a second show on Claiming Williams Day in February.