The Indy reviews Speak Out Loud’s ‘Celestial Open Mic.’
A semicircle of cold faces, cold toes, and cold fingers. A cold night across the concrete of the Science Center observatory. Faces shadowed by rear floodlights, faces lit by the waxing moon and a single smartphone screen. A voice. A mic. A quiet murmuring of snaps, rising against the stillness.
Spoken word is a powerful thing. From formal speech and rhetoric to song, theater, and simple dialogue, the capacity to communicate and connect through sound resonates throughout our culture. Harvard Speak Out Loud (SOL) knows this well. SOL provides safe spaces—no judgment is passed and no names leave—for student poets to read their favorite work throughout the year. With the help of the Student Astronomers at Harvard-Radcliffe (STAHR), SOL hosted a “Celestial Open Mic” event on Friday, September 25th. First-years and seniors alike stood with their backs to the Boston skyline reading original works as well as favorite pieces from books, smartphones, and personal journals. Among the pieces of astrologic equipment scattered across the roof, their audience cupped hot chocolate and listened with awe. I settled myself against one of the steel beams of the Science Center facade to watch.
Distinct from pure poetry, spoken word is an art form with its own rules. Half word-smithing, half performance, the aesthetics of each poem is brought to life in the execution; each word grows in sound and sight and feeling. Some poets stutter; some stumble, some shake. Some pause to laugh with their audiences at a particularly absurd line before driving forcefully into the next. A few gesture, point out their heart or put out their hands or pull down the stars. One even stomps with his words. The poet is alive, and the poem lives through the poet, breathing and growing in every moment with its audience. A line break becomes a caught breath. A cascade of assonance tumbles faster and faster from the poet’s tongue. One speaker reads an excerpt from her short story, and the prose becomes magical, too.
Beyond the beauty of raw artistic connection between poet and listener, open mic makes room for difficult topics. The first poet of the night tackles body image, listing the ways in which an eating disorder once cocooned over her. Another gives a powerful performance on bodily integrity, weaving powerful metaphors of dogs and wolves and light and red. From queer desire to racism, from fist-bumping a hook-up to saying “goodbye, grandma” one last time, the artists who speak share a truly wide and diverse range of thoughts, experiences, and feelings.
This is the gift of the safe space; its freedom brings poets out and audiences closer because we can choose to let out the things that make us think. It can be so hard to present one’s thoughts so openly, particularly in a place as storied and established in the American academic firmament as Harvard. Eye contact—human contact—is difficult to find or create in day-to-day contexts here, let alone such personal performances. It’s easy to pull away from others and doubt oneself silently. But the support of the SOL community encourages writers to embrace their vulnerability. If a poet prefaces their work by saying they’ve just written it, the board members cheer “New shit!” If a poet presents a piece from months or years ago, they cheer, “Old shit!” Yet it is always a friendly cheer, and the snaps, cheers, applause, and heartfelt comments enthusiastically offered to every poet ultimately affirm: Your thoughts are valid and important to me. You are important. In that moment, everyone belongs there.
At the very end of the night, on the too-bright canvas of my phone, I put into words some thoughts and shakily take the makeshift stage. Fingertips numb around the mic, shivering with nerves and cold, I speak.
Spoken word is a powerful and terrifying thing. The artist is actively forging the relationship between the art form and its audience, and it’s hard to create a connection so personal without flinching. It’s hard to hear one’s own thoughts so frankly at first, and to be heard by so many. Yet every poet leaves with relief in their heart.
A voice, a mic, a word. It resonates. It frees.
Audrey Effenberger ’19 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is working on speaking a little louder.