Erica Nicole's left hand shook tenuously, her poem wilted from the oppressive summer humidity. Approaching the vintage-style microphone with a rainbow ribbon pinned to her chambray shirt dress, she spoke:
One man might have done the shooting, but we have been loading the bullets for him for years.
Erica has been coming to read for Write About Now Poetry (or WAN Poetry), a Houston nonprofit poetry collective, for about six months. The organization, which hosts weekly open mikes and poetry slams in the AvantGarden courtyard, formed more than two years ago to provide a poetry platform for all people, particularly those whose work remains unnoticed in traditional literary circles. In the wake of the Pulse Nightclub massacre, Erica hoped to use that platform not only to pay homage to Orlando's devastated families but also to demand change.
"It's crazy to think that there are people out there that hate me — but don't even know me — just for existing," said Erica, who identifies as queer. She's found the Houston spoken word scene to be a place of refuge after moving from New York and struggling with depression and PTSD. "I have bad social anxiety; I don't like being in new places, but there's something about being here that made me feel safe."
Safety is critical in a space where so many poets sort out the sticky realities of life on the microphone. They deal with the ugliness that is so often left unspoken, cutting its euphemisms to the quick of reality. On one Wednesday poetry slam, Xach Blunt aired his frustration over omnipresent microaggressions, like a white woman clutching her purse as she passed him on the street. Eddie Morales, in his poem "Letter to My Dad When I Have the Courage to Give It to Him," wrestled with the emotional terrorism of a father struggling with substance abuse. Ayokunle Falomo spoke to the universal anxiety between pride and one's self-worth. In a world where the assertion of one's value as a human being is dangerous, WAN poets are radical guerrillas.
The leader of this rebel outfit, Amir Safi, has been cultivating WAN poetry since its inception (you might recognize him from his poem "Ode to Whataburger," which went viral in 2015). "To have great poets, you need a great audience. I take that responsibility really seriously so these poets' voices reach as many ears as possible." That audience has grown: WAN poetry has more than 23,000 Twitter followers, and more than 100 poets participated in the group's slams in the past eight months alone. This year also marks the first that WAN will send a team to the National Poetry Slam, the largest team performance poetry event in the world.
Despite all the changes and attention, WAN poetry remains a close-knit group of voices trying to make sense of their pain. "Poetry is really raw and vulnerable, and you're showing some of the scariest, darkest parts of yourself. It's basically open-heart surgery onstage," said Erica. "But being here with these people, with this family that I've created for myself, I was never worried about bleeding out." Safi encourages anyone who might be curious about the scene to come out, make friends and take their moment at the mike. "Sometimes people need to hear what you have to say more than you are afraid to share it."
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At first glance, it doesn't look like much anything would scare Christopher Diaz, the winner of Wednesday night's poetry slam and a member of the WAN Poetry nationals team; thick with muscle and a former captain in the Air Force, he speaks with the even-tempered confidence of an enlisted man. Still, the mike scares him. "I find being that vulnerable incredibly challenging. It's terrifying," said Diaz. His work, which copes with the gaping voids of depression and the genealogy of trauma in his military family, has a liberal stream-of-consciousness style that obscures its precision.
And an argument
feels like a sandstorm brewing.
My words become weapon
trigger living room into war zone.
Despite the challenges, Diaz finds his spoken word poetry liberating and fulfilling. "Countless times, people have come up to me and other poets, and they tell us how much this means to them," Diaz said. "That they never knew something like this existed. That now that they know this is here, they are going to be here every week, and I see them every week." The value of the community, rather than the competition, the family rather than the social justice fight, is clear from our talk. When a team member came up to congratulate him on the night's win (he had yet to hear of it because of this interview), Diaz took it in stride. The performance itself — being there — was more important.
Write About Now Poetry meets every Wednesday at AvantGarden at 7:30 pm. You see more spoken word poetry from the group by visiting https://www.youtube.com/user/WANpoetry.