Nuyorican poets illuminate norms

Voices filled a packed house at Goodrich on Thursday, each clamoring to impress the weight of their words upon the audience. Several poets stepped up from all walks in life, giving an artistic flair to the dialogue aspect integral to the day’s events. “Language, Identity and Empowerment,” the Claiming Williams program that hosted these voices, began with several students performances before members from the Nuyorican Poetry Slam Team spoke onstage.

Patricia Cho ’10 organized the event. “I just wanted people to take away the different pictures that exist,” she said. “There are no outright prejudices [at Williams], just diversity.” This variety was evident from the range of the captivating stories. Cho herself performed two pieces with rapid‑fire passion, creatively tying poignant lines such as “equal does not mean same” into the Claiming Williams manifesto.

Soraya Membreno ’12 tackled the connotations of “exotic” and “different,” using “words [as] a weapon … a creed.” She also challenged her audience’s notion of the occasion: “Spaces are not meant to be claimed … claim yourself.” Colin Killick ’12 presented “Child of Israel,” which dealt with the institutional discrimination of reformed Jews. His piece began with a litany in Hebrew and ended by quoting “another angry Jew,” Bob Dylan.

Goodrich was then soaked in the syrup of Bridget Ngcobo ’12’s voice as she expressed her balancing act on “a tightrope between two universes [embodies] this other me that tries to understand your version of equality.” Brian Thomas ’12 followed her with his sobering sentiment about historically literal, and now intellectual, “slavery and shackles.”

The expositions of these strident personalities were only meant as warm-up for caliber talent from outside the purple bubble. The Nuyorican Poetry Café is a nonprofit organization that has showcased and cultivated performance arts since the 1970s. Numerous figures in the world of spoken word have been attracted to this creative hub in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the incredibly talented performers are selected to represent the Café’s nationally ranked slam team – which included 2001 National Slam Champion and alumna of the College Mayda del Valle ’00.

After Mahogany Browne performed at one of the Café’s weekly “Open Rooms” last fall, the campus group Speakfree invited her for Claiming Williams. This time she brought along with her three members from past slam teams to enrich “Language, Identity and Empowerment” with an assortment of potent articulations of societal issues.

Mahogony’s easy‑going, expressive air infused Goodrich with the Nuyorician’s atmosphere. Her pieces were interspaced among those of the other slammers, as her topics ranged from child soldiers in Uganda to campaign-time phobias about Obama’s race relations. She repeatedly emphasized the power of properly used language. “Words leapt like gazelles from my page to my mouth,” she said, to “syncopate [the] hearts” of listener and writer. Mingled with her humor were vivid speech-summoned images (“for a moment my skin collected itself and hid under the bed like a child”) that were as sobering as they were vivid. Her words spoke to unwed teenage mothers, reality TV consumers, political pundits and to us.

Rico Steal, of the Café’s 2008 slam team, had the poetical trappings of a quality streetwise scholar. He eloquently exhibited a talent for the turn of phrase. Two of his more biting remarks were “homies who have done sentences who can’t form sentences” and “women: the most influential enigma.” His metaphors, including, “[written] on the back of my mother’s womb” and “origami birds struck by lightning,” took those in attendance to the heights of imagery. Masterfully navigating the difficult skill of stepping outside of his identity, he performed a poem written with voices from women in his life adding comedic touches like “clitoracy” to its heartfelt nature.

After him came Sick Prose, from the 2009 team. She endeared with a captivating “hate poem” that conflated her home city and her love life (“I wanted to be your Brooklyn door … like you wanted everything inside”), before moving on to a poem about social relations on a greater scale. Her concluding poem was an accumulation of her culture and relationships: an ode to her daughter where she concludes that she has achieved fulfillment with a being who represented “my heart beating outside of my chest.”

Also from the 2008 team, high school English teacher Adam Falkner amused with his humorous social commentary (“T‑Pain’s 10 reasons he should be Time’s person of the year”) and reflected with “Cool,” weaving together memories of Michael Jackson with his own teenage experience. His most striking poem dealt with the anxiety of self-examination. In the process of “weaving together the mystery of my blood,” he addressed how poets grapple with identity: “We write what we know … we take our skin off … I’m just beginning to own that history.”

The verbal snapshots that made up “Language, Identity and Empowerment” formed a collage that promoted contemplation. We seize our essence with effective expression; writers merely make that process look easy. Witnessing the variety of roads these poets took with language suggested that our communication will take longer than a single day before we can truly claim Williams. The convergence of Nuyorician talent on Claiming Williams embodied the day’s aim of highlighting what different members of a community bring to the table.