Upbeat and savvy poet spits progressive verse

“I like to set up sentimental things and f—- it all up,” slam poet Giles Li said last Saturday during his performance for the keynote event of Asian American Heritage Month ’09. Case in point was a moment about halfway through the performance when Li sang the first half of “The Sign” by Ace of Base. The soothing strumming of his guitar and his passionate voice filled Paresky Theater. “This song is fresh,” he paused to say. Then, just like that, Li jumped off his stool, and the song was over. His performance as a whole was comprised of moments like these: a build up of intense emotion and then a comical release.

Li opened with “The Worst Poet in the World,” in which he played on traits that he feels conflate average poems to appear exceptional: senseless singing, too much repetition, allusions to revolution and references to mid-1990s hip-hop (“I say ‘ha’ ‘cause I’m Juvenile”). His poem became progressively “worse,” with smooth-sounding alliterations and multi-syllables that ultimately convey no cohesive image. “Performing on stage is not about your voice, it’s about your heart,” Li said. “If that’s not what it’s about for us, we need to go back to the beginning and rebuild.”

The performance did, indeed, follow Li’s heart. He included seemingly random, laugh-out-loud anecdotes between each poem. Li spoke about things in pop culture, including America’s Best Dance Crew, Facebook and Twitter to develop ideas about voting, communication and celebrities in relationship to the poems he performed. These sparks of thought, though, often went on tangents, but they were enjoyable nonetheless. After “The Worst Poet,” Li mentioned the upcoming concert by The Roots as part of Spring Fling. He recounted a story about meeting Black Thought, the group’s lead MC, at a hotel. “Are you gonna come see the show?” Black Thought asked. “‘Na, it’s too expensive,’” Li remembers saying. “He didn’t seem too happy after that!”

In “The Morning After,” which Li wrote the day after Obama won the presidential election, Li described his lack of excitement about Obama’s win. His delivery of the poem was as calm and cynical as the content. He described the concerns at the children’s community center where he works, including, among others, the unavailability of healthy snacks and the high number of special needs kids. The poem was laced with narratives about the kids with whom he works daily. “There’s enough people invested in the life of Obama, but not enough in the lives of – Ming and K.K.,” he said. The nation should not feel like our job is done because we cast our votes. This is a message Li wants to be heard, as the concluding line of his poem illustrated: “My name’s Giles Li, and I approved this message.”

“Woman” wooed the audience with lyrics of praise for womankind. “I refuse to believe a woman’s greatness should be defined in the confines of a relationship with a member of the opposite gender,” Li proclaimed. He paid tribute to “the woman who gave me life, and the woman who gave me meaning.” Likewise, “Anna Nicole” criticized the media and gossip-lovers for poking fun at a woman even after she died. “Your body was found two months ago, and still you haven’t been laid to rest,” Li said. Like his “tombstone” poems, Li made it his duty to bury the image of Anna Nicole Smith as a foolish woman who deserves ridicule. All of us, Li implied, have our share of problems.

“Stutter,” Li’s last poem, chronicled his growth from a boy discouraged by his nervous stutter to a man whose voice is amplified in his shows on stage. He said he does not care about pleasing his audience when he performs because the poems are about him. This line seemed as if it could be a direct shot to the audience members who left the theater loudly, in the middle of an anecdote, just moments before. Still, Li is humble in the face of unpleased audience members. “I like to diss myself, so people can’t do it after [the show],” he explained. “They try to say something, and I’m like, ‘I already said that!’” Yet Li ended with the sense that though he does not cater to his audience, he is aware of what makes Williams College students laugh and, by the end of the night, applaud with sincerity.