The two scenes are almost identical: both take place in the aftermath of slam poetry, surrounded by smoky blacklight and boxed-in-bodies trembling to the rhythm of words, sounds, memories, and feelings.
Scene One: Atlanta, Georgia
The Java Monkey coffee shop on the outskirts of the city streets hosts an open mic night every Sunday evening, with men and women of different cultural backgrounds, occupations, and experiences sharing love ballads and rants with an audience of hungry listeners. I was an awkward fifteen year old sitting on the outskirts of the crowd, gawking at the stories pouring out of the mouths of enraged schoolteachers and weary wives, all stepping up to a dim stage and giving raw testimonies. I can remember standing in awe of the giants who raised the timbre of their voices, exploring humanity in the form of words. No topic was untouched — political statements against the president, experiences with police brutality, growing up in a single-parent household, rejection, loss, betrayal, forgiveness. Each concept was carefully articulated and breathlessly released on a stage built on the foundation of courage. This was my first experience with spoken word.
Scene Two: Princeton, New Jersey
The Wilson Blackbox houses a cozy theater, the perfect alcove for the intimacy of spoken word. This time, the faces of my fellow peers shine with the yellow undertone of stage lights as we all sit facing ten of the Songline slam poetry group’s members. The show is titled “No Reservations,” promising a cacophony of emotions and unfiltered expressions. It doesn’t disappoint. From the very beginning, pictures of cast members Sena Cebeci ’19, Sam Schultz ’19, David Exume ’19, Edric Huang ’18, Kathleen Ma ’18, Lavinia Liang ’18, Sara Howell ’20, Savannah Du ’18, Alex Kim ’21, and Mariah Wilson ’18 line the walls outside, all standing with unique expressions on their faces. We begin with a program including pieces titled “Chew,” “Smokey the Bear: Too Smokey to Bear,” “Missed Call,” “Open (Up),” “Smokey the Bear: Home Fire,” “3 O’Clock!,” “When the Red Light Flashes,” and “FTS.” The crux of each poem is stunningly different: themes range from social issues in the workplace to the everyday excuses college students make for replacing real relationships and promises to a missed call from an ex-lover, to moments slipping through fingertips. However, “When the Red Light Flashes” and “FTS” surprise me in the best possible way, taking a different course from the poems I’ve heard before.
Cut to “When the Red Light Flashes” and you’ll find a completely personal poem accompanied by a poet who uses hand motions to emphasize movement. The poem recounts the tale of two highly complex relationships: one between a father and son, and one between a boy and the girl he loves. Red like her eyes, red like the stoplight, red like the sirens of police cars approaching a house … red like love and loneliness.
Cut to the final piece of “No Reservations” and you’re hit with something that’s rare in a slam poetry performance: coinciding narratives. “FTS” is unabashed and unapologetic: it utilizes two layered voices to talk about experiences learned at Princeton, ranging from formalities in administration to class course loads.
The most important message of “FTS,” and of many of the poems presented by Songline, can be summed up with the line, “I’d rather dismantle the summit than get to the top of it.” “No Reservations” goes for the systems we all become chained by, the numbers we become obsessed with. Just like the perspectives I was first exposed to back home in Atlanta, the perspectives of Princeton poets encouraged listeners to think beyond just becoming a boss and toward dismantling the summit.