How a Poetry Event Taught Me About Empowerment
By: Katherine Feinstein
When I volunteered to cover Ann Arbor’s Poetry Night, an event put together by the youth-driven nonprofit the Neutral Zone, I wanted to step out of my comfort zone. I’m an English major with a tenacity for literary analysis, and only over the last year have I expanded on my own stylistic narrative and voice as an editorial writer. However, creative writing and poetry have never been my strong suits. Perhaps it is the malleable nature of the genre, or the space for emotional vulnerability that has always spooked me. Nevertheless, the title of the event, “I Name This Body Mine,” sounded like a feminist-driven theme that would coincide with my passions for body positivity and mental health.
As I walked into the Mendelssohn Theatre in the Michigan League, the stage decorations immediately caught my attention: colorful tree branches hung from the ceiling, flowers dressed the stage walls in rich fuchsias and blues, and a single sheet-music stand stood at center stage entrapped in a twisted sunflower. Intrigued, I found my seat and reminded myself to keep an open mind and not have any preconceived expectations.
After the lights dimmed, a green screen hanging at the back of the stage glowed awake, and a stop-motion video of a blooming flower emerged. After the flower bloomed, the host for the event walked on stage and began to introduce the event. For two months, a dedicated ensemble of young poets had been practice performing and writing vigorously to produce a show rooted in the importance of healing from traumas and the concept of “reclamation.” Reclamation, as the host explained, is the idea of taking back what is yours, becoming stronger in that act, and being your most authentic self in that declaration of your body. Automatically, I felt a sense of nostalgia in this opening, recalling years of high school I spent battling my own mental health until I finally learned to reclaim my body and fight to be myself again.
For the next two hours, poets of all shapes, sizes, colors, religious faiths, genders, and sexes performed their own spoken word poetry. According to the Poetry Foundation , spoken word poetry is a genre that combines oral traditions and performance in order to present a poem theatrically. Spoken word poems frequently refer to issues of social justice and race, and poets may use music, sound, or other kinds of creative performance mechanisms to connect with the audience. Some poets used recordings of acoustic guitar or piano, while some chose to let their words sink into the silence of the room.
The most astounding quality of the performers, however, was the fact that their passion and words did not match my inferences of them. As each new poet stepped onto stage, I immediately imagined the kind of message they would send, their stature and tone, and what character they would be presenting through their performance. What I did not anticipate was that each poet’s story uniquely shined through their words in a way I could have never imagined. I found myself soaking up their chants like a sponge -- feeling the sharp stab of every hard-hitting recollection from a sexual assault survivor; embracing the warm, hopeful sentiments of a man who just recently embraced his homosexuality.
Their reclamations of their authenticity danced off their tongues in a way that resonated with me, no matter the subject or story. The passion, hopefulness, and strength of the performances were enough for me to find things in every message that I could emotionally connect to. One man who was Cuban and half-Black noted, “I feel less like an explanation,” as he continues his journey to feeling comfortable on American soil in his own skin. Though I am white and my immediate family is also Caucasian-American, somehow his words resonated with me. I felt as though I could empathize in that feeling of discontent in being different, or the feeling of living with an intolerant President.
However the most moving poem to me and my own struggles was a young poet speaking about finally standing up to her Anorexia. She began the poem lamenting about what seemed to be an abusive relationship: anger built up as she spoke of “His” hands on her at the dinner table without her consent, His degrading words slapping her across the face whenever she tried to eat. Then, after several minutes, she introduced this abusive boyfriend as “Anorexia,” crediting “Him” with the power to shelter her from her family and friends, and make her hate herself to the point that she couldn’t think any countering thoughts besides the negativity that flowed through her veins. Eventually, her voice began to intensify as she spoke of how she invigorated herself from Him, slapped His meaningless hand away at the dinner table and learned to love her curves because they’re “fucking womanly and beautiful.” People in the audience began to snap in support of her strength, cheers echoing from the back of the theatre and heads in front of me nodding. At this point, tears were rolling down my face and I did not try to stop them. Her words hit me like a truck and then picked me up off the ground. Somehow hearing someone so powerful chant their journey into a microphone made me feel proud of myself, soaking in her words as if they were my own.
I hadn’t expected to relate to the poets on stage to such a personal degree. Perhaps it was the positivity surrounding me in the audience: people snapping to the poets’ fearlessness, whooping at the sound of a line of “reclamation.” Or, maybe a small part of me wished I could be as courageous as they were, standing up on stage with no hesitation and screaming their most authentic thoughts to a crowd of mostly strangers. In a way, though, just being there to hear the vigorous voices of my generation made me feel confident and powerful, as if their stories and bravura were beacons of hope. I think that fearlessness is something that everyone should witness as well. Getting out of my comfort zone during this event was important, but I was happier that I gave myself the opportunity to be inspired.
Photo property of the Neutral Zone