Poetry is a genre I have held very close to me since childhood. The first thing I ever wrote was a poem, the pieces I loved to go back to and re-read were poems, and while I did dabble a little with fiction and writing my own essays in my ratty old notebook, poetry was the one thing I a would constantly fall back on when I really needed help. Poetry was therapy.
Looking back, it amazes me that I never considered it a performance art – very possibly *because* I felt it was too personal to share, and back then the stage and personal stuff didn’t seem like two things that would go together.
It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a video put up by an old college friend, Rochelle D’silva, intriguingly titled “I Have Perfect Bottle-Opening Hands” in 2012, that I realised you could perform your work, connect with your audience and make them partners in what you were doing – all at once.
I still remember frantically typing “spoken word” on the tiny YouTube searchbox afterwards and bookmarking a whole range of videos from Brave New Voices and various American poetry slams. I spent the next few months trying to find poetry events around the city (I wasn’t too disappointed: I’d found Caferati’s and Big Mic’s monthly open mics, and the yearly Dirty Talk event organized by Gaysi. I spent hours poring obsessively over videos of performances by Alyssia Harris, Phil Kaye and Sarah Kaye, Lauren Zuniga and Andrea Gibson.
I found myself replaying slam videos over and over, just studying their pauses, the rise and fall of their voices, the way they moved their hands. I imitated slam poets like a child trying to walk in her mother’s shoes, wearing her mother’s lipstick. Often, I wouldn’t perform a piece if it didn’t fit this mold. This worked, sometimes, but very often I’d return home feeling something was off, though I couldn’t place a finger on exactly what it was. Essentially, I was performing my work on themes I would cherry-pick because everyone was talking about them, in a fashion that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, and in an art form I thought I knew.
When Rochelle returned to Mumbai, she saw the potential for more in the Spoken Word scene, and explained in painstaking detail what the scene was like elsewhere. She spoke about slams, features, workshops, open mics and suddenly I couldn’t figure out what the difference between them was. She spoke about rooting yourself to the space where you performed and feeling your piece. About knowing your poem inside out, so much so that you didn’t need to perform it word-by-word. About how your poems grew *with* you, and how you could perform the same piece differently at two different points of time, because by then you would have changed as a person. I didn’t even think these things were possible.
I had to step out of writing to win a slam or gaining appreciation, and get back to exploring – deep down – the things that really affected me. I had to go back to seeing my poetry as therapy. Sometimes comforting, sometimes painful, sometimes leading me back to places I didn’t want to re-examine. But in the end, every piece I wrote thereafter would teach me something new about myself, and I knew there would be people out there who would listen and find a piece of themselves in it too.
It’s been two years since my first performance, and I’m still learning. And with every performance I’ve come to realize that the one thing that will help us grow as performers is trust. Very often we might not stay true to ourselves or in what we write because we are scared, but I find that Spoken Word provides you that safe space to let yourself go completely if you want. Often, when I freak out because I’m not sure I’ll perform well, I tell myself that trust is key. That’s something I’d want to say to many nervous newcomers too.
Trust the ground that holds you steady while you perform. Trust your audience – like you, they know how it feels to lay your soul bare on a stage. Trust the words you’ve written, your body, your voice. They are yours in a way nothing else can be.
Most of all, trust yourself. You got this 🙂