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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Open Mic at the Harbor Gallery

Open Mic at the Harbor Gallery

Although many of us who are students might think of poetry as those dead old lines of verse that fill our often all too sterile textbooks, something distant from our lives and intended merely as fodder for Intro to Lit classes, the origins of poetry lie in fact in the hustle and bustle of social communication; poetry is one of humankind’s earliest means of creating community through art.

Early poems were meant to be entertaining, exciting, and socially relevant. Akin to movies and rock shows, the primary communal activities of our time, poetry performances were an immediate and vibrant experience in which entire communities could share their collective doubts, fears, and hopes in a way that was both stimulating and meaningful to the conditions of their life experiences. Before it was pinned to the page, poetry moved among us, a universal voice shaping itself to our lives.

Nowadays, we often lose sight of the social importance of poetry. But every now and then something happens that reaffirms this importance for us. The Poetry Open Mic that took place in the Harbor Art Gallery on Tuesday, November 5 was such an event.

Open mics, when done right, carry with them the vestiges of poetry’s past. An open mic event is even more conducive to social exchange than a regular poetry reading because, rather than fixing the role of speaker and audience, the open mic form allows the audience to interact with the poets, to join in as poets themselves and contribute to the dialogue. Open mics allow the members of the community to speak to each other through their art. That kind of communication was in evidence last Tuesday.

This open mic was hosted by the Watermark, UMB’s annual literary journal. The Watermark traditionally holds several open mic events a year to inform students about the journal, and to provide a chance for aspiring poets to share their work out loud before they share it in print. In addition to poetry, the Watermark also publishes works of fiction and creative non-fiction. The Watermark is published at the end of the Spring semester, and is currently accepting submissions until January 10.

The event began at 3pm, and within a half an hour the Harbor Art Gallery was bustling with an energetic crowd of students who helped themselves to a fine spread of food, provided by Patty’s Pantry of Dorchester. After satisfying their bellies, the audience settled to satisfy their minds.

Nancy Derby, co-editor of the Watermark along with Diane Costigliani, took to the podium to welcome everyone. She informed the audience that a sign-up sheet for the open mic was being circulated, and expressed the generally egalitarian tone of the afternoon, saying, “If you’re interested in reading, just sign it…anyone who wants to read poetry or fiction or improv, just pretty much anything that you’re up for.”

Derby went on to discuss the $200 prizes being offered by the Watermark for this year’s best submissions in the fiction and poetry categories. The journal was funded $600 from the English Department to supply the prizes.

Derby briefly went over the submission form and invited those with more questions to speak to her or contact the Watermark office, which is located on the fourth floor of Wheatley, room 174. She reminded those wishing to submit to include their work on a computer disk along with a hard copy, and to not include their name on the hard copy. “The selection process is anonymous…which is very important in order to have a legitimate journal,” she said.

She also mentioned that the Watermark has several other events planned for the year: “We’re really excited about the events for this year…In December we have Ha Jin [the award-winning author of the novel Waiting] coming.”

At 4:30, the open mic began.

The social nature of the event expressed itself in the content of the poetry performed as well; indeed, social issues seemed to be on everyone’s minds. Perhaps it was due to the fact that it was Election day, or perhaps because of the intensely disturbing world situation we are all living in now, but each of the performers turned from the personal and confessional mode, with which poetry is all too often associated, to focus on the political.

The first performer set the tone with a poem marked by its insightful social criticism. In plain speech quickened with sharp rhythms, the poem addressed the issues of living in a racist culture, how racist terms become adopted by the groups they are aimed against, and ended with an affirmation of the unity of oppressed groups–“brothers and sisters,” she proclaimed, “we can cry together.”

“I just got my inspiration,” said Vladimir David, in reference to the first performance, as he took the podium to recite his poem about living in poverty and in a violent society. The poem, which seemed influenced by freestyle rap in its use of rhythm and rhyme, gained momentum as David reeled off a staggering list of the dangers facing the poor and politically under-represented.

Natalia Cooper, the third performer, also expressed her admiration for her fellow poets. “I was just going to read one poem and then I figured that I would read two because I was so inspired by the two people who just went,” she said before reading a poem titled “Dragging Diamonds and Death” about the suffering of workers that goes into the making of consumer goods and how the superficial satisfaction of these goods clouds our recognition of the injustice perpetrated to produce them.

Next up was Gulet, who appeared to have several fans in the audience. “Tonight we have this event that allows us as artists and also as people who enjoy poetry to come and listen to other people,” he said. “I just want to say that having events like this is really important for us because it gives [a place where] we can come feel comfortable and also share our work.”

Gulet read from a work in progress that spoke of the social situation of Black Americans and was a call for unity among the oppressed community to stop using the tools of the oppressor against itself.

Other highlights of the event included Jay Cole’s animated performances of his kinetic stream of consciousness poems. His second piece, “We Are Starving as Writers”, was both a humorous and a serious comment on the state of the working class poet and the conflict between the artistic need and the need to survive in the real world.

Jason Trefts, a musical performer, read the lyrics to his song “Manifesto”, which touched upon of the election process and the war in Afghanistan.

Krishaunna Baptiste performed her poem “Young Blood”, encouraging black youth to remember their past and to deal with issues in ways that avoid self-destructive violence.

Jean Dany Joachi performed “Curfew”, a poem about the political situation in Haiti, his home country, and “Immigrant”, a poem that felt particularly poignant considering the problems imposed upon immigrants in this country since September 11. His work was intense and controlled, with a formal elegance that underscored its emotional subject matter.

After the performances finished, Gulet and Cooper took the podium together to say a few words about the UMB Poetry Circle, of which they are both members. The Poetry Circle provides a workshop style setting for students to read and discuss each other’s poetry without the pressure of an academic classroom. The Circle also publishes a poetry journal called Hypergraphia. Two issues will be published this year, one this semester and one in the Spring. Cooper, who is Treasurer for the Circle, invited the audience to visit the group’s meetings (the next will be on Friday, November 15) and to submit to Hypergraphia.

Nancy Derby returned to the podium to invite all those interested in knowing more about the Watermark to speak to her and to thank the audience for attending.

When an open mic is run well, as this one was, there is a feeling of community and excited involvement that is hard to match. The Watermark’s open mic, like the very best open mics I have attended, fostered a sense of unity and equality, where everyone has a chance to share their unique voice and value is not based on one’s race or gender or even aesthetic inclination, but solely on the strength of one’s poems. And there were some mighty strong poems representin’ at this open mic.