In the course I teach, Spoken Word as Art and Communication, I discuss three components to poetry performance: (1) Content (what the speaker says and how the speaker says it), (2) Body Language (what the speaker does with the body while on stage), (3) Appearance (the speaker’s physical appearance).
The third component, Appearance, is important for a few different reasons, but namely I say, “People physically size each other up on a regular basis.” As general a statement this might be, simply consider examples in your own life: when you walk into a clothing store or boutique, do the people working there reflect the image of the store? Or when you are lost, your GPS no longer works, and you pull over to ask someone for directions, do you approach anyone in sight?
For instance, I remember my first year teaching at the university (10 years ago). It was the first week of school, and one class in particular was very new for me (familiar subject matter but my first time teaching it in a classroom setting). On one hand, it was exciting, and on the other, it was scary.
I walked into class and saw six to eight students sitting in front of me (I can’t remember the exact number but it was small). I recall a friend saying to me a long time ago, “Set the ground rules from day one and hold your court. Don’t waiver.” I thought I did exactly that. We had introductions, we went over the syllabus, and we talked about my experiences and qualifications. After all, I was the new kid in the department and on campus. I felt I had to set the tone for the sort of instructor I wanted to be. Everything was going well. Then a student suddenly asked a question. And I believe from the time I walked into the classroom to the time he asked the question, there was a steady progression that led to this very moment: “How old are you?” I will be honest; I was flabbergasted by his query and his condescending tone. I may have stuttered through my response, but no, I did not tell him my age.
I remember class being difficult that semester because I felt I was being scrutinized. I even carefully reviewed everything I said leading up to his question, and I don’t recall doing or saying anything that gave him the right to ask my age. After I responded awkwardly, he then told the class his age (26 years old), his experience, his father’s occupation, and his internships that he had lined up.
He sized me up, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “If I were in a totally different body, maybe even spoken differently, would he have asked my age?” On many occasions I have had students, strangers, and friends tell me I look much younger than I actually am. Again, I am being sized up, and that is fine. This is what we do as humans. However, what I learned later was that I must use all three components to shift the dialogue. Be it poetry performance, class discussion, or social conversations, I should use all of me to direct the energy where I want it to go.
The Courage to Use My Voice: Creating an Equal Playing Field
On September 27, 2013 (the day after my birthday, no less), I participated in a weekend of poetry in Bologna, Italy. The event was called 100 Thousand Poets for Change. I was with all sorts of poets from different parts of the world: South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, United States and more. I performed twice (a morning and an evening performance), both experiences were wonderful for various reasons.
My evening performance was among a number of poets who (like me) had 10 minutes on stage. What I noticed most about this event was that no matter the poet’s prestige, every person on stage was on an equal plane. Whether the person was speaking for the first time or s/he was performing for the millionth time, everyone was treated equally. Now, this doesn’t prevent a poet from being sized up but it does set the ground rules – whether you are famous or considered a closet poet and only your pet dog has seen your performance, you still have an opportunity to put all three components to work. You can be as theatrical, melodramatic, shy, musical, earnest and/or sporadic as you want to be on stage. Your audience is there to watch you and interact from their seats, unless you, the poet, say otherwise. This gave me the freedom to tell my audience about my world. I addressed abuse, sexism, classism, racial difference, and the beauty of wearing locs.
My morning performance was very different. I spoke to 26 middle school students who were from different parts of the world – Morocco, Tunisia, Romania, Italy, Bangladesh, Senegal, Nigeria, just to name a few. Pina Piccolo, who organized this speaking engagement (and who also translated for me in the classroom), told me that she chose this school because it was more diverse, and these particular students were more apt to experience discrimination because of their ethnicity. This revved me up even more. I was ready to share everything, although I was unsure whether or not my 30+ year-old self would be able to truly relate to 12 and 13-year-olds. However, I left the school empowered, as if I could take on the world and no one would dare look down on me. I was feeling like a Superhero, especially given my recent charge from Deepak Chopra’s book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes: Harnessing Our Power to Change the World. In the book, Deepak and his son, Gotham (YES, as in Gotham City from Batman!) connect both ancient spiritual traditions with more modern common superhero stories. They provide a guide for honing one’s greatest potential and fully living with intention.
For the one-hour workshop I focused on what I wore, how I looked, and where I come from so that the students understood why I perform the poetry I do. It also gave them an opportunity to look at themselves. They each wrote a line of poetry that described something they liked, and then they read the line out loud. Some were nervous and others were ready to take the stage, but the key to this exercise was to “use all of you.”
The Size-Up Comes Full Circle: Recognizing My Growth
After the experience with the students, the same day, I was met with a superhero dilemma that brought me back to my classroom experience 10 years ago. I was heading home, and I got off the train in Figline Valdarno around 9pm. Since my cell phone did not work, I had to use the only payphone that seemed to exist in Figline, and of course, it was out of order, so I started to wheel my superhero Italian skills and ask people if there was another payphone I could use. Everyone said no, so then I asked where the police station was. People gave me detailed directions, although my comprehension of what they explained was well below basic Italian for tourists. I roamed around for about an hour and a half searching for a phone. Then I came across a couple leaving a parking lot – a casually dressed Italian man and woman; older looking than I (a general assumption I made). I approached them. And just in case you are wondering what I had on, take a look at the video of the workshop I did with the students that morning.
Maybe my skin color blended in with the night and they couldn’t see me clearly or maybe my short stature and fire-brown felted hair was a little startling to the couple; regardless, I was tired, cold, and quickly becoming desperate. I told them in Italian, “I speak a little bit of Italian.” And before I could say anything else, the woman put her hand up and then walked away. I’ll be honest, my first thought was, “Are you crazy? Do you really think I’m going to jump you out here? Or do you think I’m going to ask you for money? Do you know who I am? I AM A POET!” But my true immediate reaction was silence. With my head between my legs, I was wondering, “How in the world am I going to get home?”
The man looked at me for a moment and said, “Dimmi,” which means, “Tell me” or paraphrased, “How can I help you?” I explained my situation, and he said the same thing as other people – he gave me directions to the police station. While this is happening, the woman had crossed the street and stood there waiting for the man to finish talking to me. There are two sides to a story: my side says this woman sized me up and was not trying to give me the time of day. Honestly, I don’t know what her side of the story is, but I suspect it had something to do with her hand gesture and the look of disgust that said, “You are not worth me taking the time to understand your basic level of Italian.” I am most positive, she SIZED ME UP.
Finally, I ended up making a phone call, not at the police station but at the local cinema. An older Italian man who was working at the cinema was very kind and offered to call the person who was picking me up. Please note: I was humbled that people were willing to talk to me in this small town that had few open places after 9pm. And I was happy that my only dissent was from this one woman, but I learned a few things that weekend as an artist, a change agent, and a person who used to avoid conflict like the plague:
- I Must Use My Voice. No matter how nervous I am about speaking, I must use my voice. The minute I open my mouth, I have created a stage or platform, and the audience will respond to me – be it positive or negative.
- I Have to Speak Up for Myself. I must not let others speak for me. I run the risk of someone changing my words and my story. If I do not want that to happen then I have to SPEAK UP!
- It’s Important to Share My Story. Even when the world treats me funny, I still have to share my story. However people perceive or react to me sometimes has nothing to do with me. I am still the creator of my work. More importantly, I am operating in my authenticity.
- “Be the change I want to see in the world.” This is the shirt I wore that day for the 26 students. I had to put this phrase to practice inside the classroom, as well as outside. It’s a mantra I try to live by, especially during challenging moments when I might be afraid of change and/or conflict.
- What I Do Makes a Difference. Some people may not be ready for what I have to offer. It doesn’t matter, because what they do isn’t always my business. But, what I do makes all the difference in the world
Now reminiscing, I laugh because I did not think I would have to take my poetic swag to the mean streets of Figline, but this experience revealed my growth. Today I recognize my full being. I am aware of what I look like, what I sound like, and how I move on the various stages I create when I open my mouth. Even if my perceptions are different from the audience I am speaking to, I am at least aware of my intentions, and that helps me navigate my next move.
In other words, I don’t mind being observed. It’s like a dare, and a dare is a good thing sometimes, because I dare myself to be the greatest and most authentic ME by operating in my full being! You can’t beat that with a stick.
About the Contributing Writer:
Traci Currie is a Communication and Visual Arts lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years as an art gallery board member; spoken word series organizer; performer, nationally and internationally; and published poet. She believes the PRC will help young women reach their highest potential. “This organization is about empowering women to take ownership of their lives, claim their identities and be the positive change they wish to see in the world they live.” Read her latest posts here.