Last night, Bwog enjoyed the literary and cuisinary culture of the Latino-Caribbean with the volunteers and novice poets of Voices UnBroken.
Bwog arrived to the Voices UnBroken Poetry Slam a little late last night, but there were still plenty of maduros to be eaten and plenty of amateur poets to be heard. The reading drew a relatively small group of socially inclined and literary minded students to pay tribute to the work of the Voices Unbroken volunteers, whose mission is to bring creative writing workshops to prisons, residential treatment facilities, and various other transitional settings in Spanish Harlem and the Bronx. Despite its small size, the event lasted a solid three hours and filled the auditorium on the fifth floor of Lerner with the smells of what could be called pan Latino-Caribbean cuisine and the sounds of what it is to be young and of color in New York.
Although the poetry of isolation and ethnography can often air on pedestrian side of things, last night the poets expressed a remarkable sense of honesty and cogency. The student poets embraced the open-mic and unabashedly read, rapped and sung work that ranged from highly crafted mediations to recent observations to spur of the moment improvisations.
It seemed all too auspicious that moments after Bwog arrived that one Stephan Vincenzo, infamously of CC ’12, stepped up to the mic to read his lengthy Bildungsroman styled poem, “Where I am and Where I would be.” And indeed his poetry is as epic as his persona.
It took a few moments for Stephan to warm up but after a couple of muddled verses and cursory missed beats he soon gained composure and emphatically rapped the story of returning to his native Colombia with feelings of alienation and latent disenchantment. Although the the consistency of his rhymes were compelling at first, after five minutes the appeal wore thin. Interspersed with occasionally overwrought references to the Barrio, Stephan nonetheless managed to work in some candidacy and humor with lines like, “Eyes cold like Steve Austin.”
Jessica Johnson, CC ’11, straddled all categories when she read a poem prosaically titled, “9/27/08 Downtown 1. Destination: Columbus Circle to Return a Book at Borders.” What started out as seemingly commonplace reflection on the abundance of New York City panhandlers became a passionate, if unresolved, song about the ups and downs of coming to terms with racial assumptions, loosing touch with racial identity and general urban malaise.
The highlight of Jessica’s performance was the repeated refrain of The Temptations’ classic, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” which she belted out with excellent timing in a deep, rich timbre. The line gave her free verse poem not just consistency, but an innovative multi-media appeal that capitalized on the tension between the spoken and sung word.
Jessica’s performance paralleled one given by Tim France earlier in the night. With an easy sense of rhythm and pace, Tim rapped and recited reticent observations inspired by a cross-city train ride from Crown Heights to the Bronx. The distance traversed seemed to pave the way for the numerous leaps and free associations Tim made. His performance touched on everything from the highly personal with specific references to his Haitian heritage to the broad with the abstracted references to the Civil Rights movement. Despite the maelstrom of subject matter and personal reflection, Tim’s bravado charmed the audience and left everyone hooting and hollering along with his halting beats and foot stomps.
Although the majority of the poem expressed reflections on ethnicity, others offered refreshingly open insight on feeling lonely and insecure in college. Yes, the majority of these poems were written by freshmen. And yes, some of them were cloying. But one freshmen hybridized the broken English of AIM-speak with the lyrical with impressive subtlety. Throughout the poem, “LMAO” was repeated, but it took the audience the entirety of the performance to recognize that “ellemayyo” was not some tuneful Spanish phrase, but the insincere abbreviation that it is.
The evening ended with a brief conclusion give by the emcee and head Voices UnBroken volunteer, Dan and a perfunctory exhortation to buy club sweatshirts. As the gathering dispersed, audience members chattered in Spanglish and spooned up flan and seemed to embody the spirit of the night.