By Grace Rogers, Highlighter staff columnist
I remember sitting in high school English classes, hearing a unanimous groan as the equally unenthusiastic teacher stood up and said, “We’re reading poetry.” It isn’t a coincidence that these poems, predominantly written by white men, didn’t resonate with everyone — they simply failed to represent diversity in struggle, which is why I love the work of today’s spoken word poets. There’s a gold mine of diverse narratives beyond our schools’ syllabi, and with YouTube and other online platforms, those stories are all at our fingertips. The spoken word is passionate, it’s exhilarating, and it more often than not leaves me with chills.
Here are five of my favorite feminist spoken word poems, as well as an interview with spoken word poet and NYU student Kaitlyn McNab.
“Say No” by Megan Falley and Olivia Gatwood
“Somewhere, a woman is told to get naked a frat party. She refuses. A boy with a kind smile puts his arm around her, offers her a beer filled with the magic that erases ‘No’ from her vocabulary.”
“Heels” by Imani Cezanne
“I wear heels because it’s useless to cater to the insecure. You think people won’t notice you? You should shine brighter. You should get more special. You should love yourself enough to not let a woman in heels emasculate you.”
“Kim Kardashian Redux” by Clementine von Radics
“Kim Kardashian made twelve million dollars last year. Last night, uncountable men in their miserable jobs told their miserable friends how Kim was nothing but a dumb whore, but Kim Kardashian will never learn their names.”
“How to Survive Being a Black Girl” by Raven Taylor
“Always remember that when you are a black girl, every day that you exist in your body without apologizing is activism.”
“Like Totally Whatever” by Melissa Lozada-Oliva
“Declarative sentences, so called because they declared themselves to be the loudest, most truest, most taking-up-the-most-space, most totally-white-man sentences, have always told me that being angry has never helped like, anybody.”
Kaitlyn McNab is a first year student studying creative writing at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Three of her poems were published in Mercer County Community College’s literary and art magazine “Aspirations,” and the first time she performed at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Wednesday Night Slam, her poem “Lethargy” earned a perfect 30 score. She recently performed in NYU Gallatin’s Black History Month “Say It Loud! Showcase” among other talented artists.
BROADER: Writing and performing poetry can be an intimidating art form to crack into. How did you start?
KAITLYN: I started performing spoken word in my junior year of high school when I took my first creative writing class. I had never liked poetry. Reading it, writing it, it was all very… excessive to me. One day my teacher showed us Gina Loring’s performance of “Somewhere There Is a Poem” on Def Poetry Jam and I fell in love. The rhythm, the tone of her voice, the power of her words, everything about it fascinated me. Especially her confidence. That was the poem that inspired me to start writing poetry.
What do you write about?
I was going through a really bad breakup at the time and after watching Gina Loring, I wrote my first poem that would become my first spoken word piece – a love poem, the gateway drug of poetry – called “The Flight.” It was about a girl who falls in love with a boy who could fly, and their tragic love story. At the end of the poem, the girl realizes she doesn’t need the boy to fly, as she can grow her own wings. I identify the girl as myself at the end of the poem.
You’re not just writing your poetry, you’re speaking it, performing it in front of audiences. How is that a different experience for you?
Spoken word is probably one of my favorite things in the world. It simply blows my mind that people can create these rhymes and take you on a journey with only their voice and their words. When I performed for the first time, I wasn’t really performing. I was reading. I read “The Flight” timidly. Even so, the response I got from the crowd was worth more than any boy’s cheap smile. Even better, how I felt after walking away from the mic was extraordinary. I was untouchable.
The second time I performed spoken word was a month later in the school talent show. Performing for 300 people was terrifying. I was used to doing school musicals, where I performed in front of 300 people singing and dancing and regurgitating lyrics and lines from known pieces. This was me standing on a stage, sharing my own words and emotions with strangers that didn’t know me from Adam. Yet, after the talent show, my Twitter inbox and text messages were flooded by friends and strangers telling me that they related to my poem and that it touched them. It was an incredible feeling. I wanted to reach this many people when I became an author, and didn’t ever believe that I could do it any other way. Spoken word was fun, it was exhilarating, and most importantly, it was gratifying, because I knew that I would be making someone feel what I felt when I first heard Gina Loring spit her poem.
Your poem “The Untold Story of a Teenage Girl” really resonated with me personally — you touched on a lot of things, like being in love, getting called “bossy,” unrealistic body standards, and the never-ending fight for gender equality. How does your identity as a black woman influence your art?
My identity as a black female has only influenced my writing in recent years. I only used to be able to write love poems, but now, most of my poems have sociopolitical undertones. I can’t seem to write a poem anymore without having some kind of social commentary, but I think this is good. Finding power in the things that should make me inferior according to society – my race, my gender – has allowed me to write unapologetically and without much fear. Being a black woman is central to my art. I wouldn’t be the writer I am if I were neither.
I feel like it’s common to hear “I can’t write poetry” or “Poetry is not for my kind of brain,” especially in an academic setting. What’s your response to that? Do you think poetry is something everyone could benefit from?
Like I said before, I used to hate poetry. I was exactly that kind of person who thought poetry wasn’t for me, or frankly, I underestimated myself and thought I could never understand it. I think people shy away from poetry because they are afraid of it. Poetry is the mouth that speaks only truth. The truth is scary, and even scarier when you find the truth in yourself. Poetry requires self reflection, regardless of the subject matter.
I think everyone can benefit from reading poetry, listening to poetry, and most importantly writing poetry. If you’re not convinced, just sit down and try to write a love poem. Love poetry is for everybody, whether it’s an ode to the love of your life or a swear-filled message to the asshole you call your ex. Poetry is the coolest form of catharsis out there, I promise you. Just try it!