The Transformative Power of Poetry – Ethan Smith
When I first started writing intentionally for poetry performance, I thought my word choice was easily understandable, and was often frustrated when people were confused about the language I was using. Over time, I improved at actually saying what I was trying to say – very important when given a stage and a captive audience. The intentionality of putting focus into each individual word is what I’ve come to learn as the best way to combat confusion, as it can affect not only the audience but also the experience of the performer.
A huge aspect of my life that has also benefited from this developed skill is my professional life. Having been a business major at Berklee College of Music, I was often asked to participate in events outside of my comfort zone, including networking events or even just the occasional classroom presentation. In any number of situations I am often asked, “What do you do?” or “What are you interested in?” which are surprisingly hard questions given two minutes of a person’s attention span in a large room of people. Simply by being intentional about my word choice, it is easier to answer those questions clearly. Speaking with this intentionally also crosses over into the realm of conflict resolution, which can be closely related to any work situation and also to personal relationships.
On performance and the body
Stepping up to the stage can either break someone out of their shell (possibly over time), or be a humbling experience based on how we handle the adrenaline. It shows when someone is using their performance craft to manipulate the audience rather than connecting with the work in a way that is most authentic.
Authenticity plays a huge role in connecting with the room. For example, I recently brought a team of young poets to compete in Louder Than A Bomb Massachusetts, where one of my team members, I’ll call her K, felt insecure about performing her piece because another student had read one on a similar topic that K thought was better than hers. K and I quickly brainstormed what the student did that made her performance so memorable. We came up with the idea that she looked like she was feeling every word in the poem, and that she believed in everything she was saying. When K performed her piece, she approached the performance with that same intention. Not only did she feel good about it, but also others were moved to speak to K afterward because they related, and could tell how strongly K felt about the material.
As a transgender man, getting to know my body itself and the way that it moves on stage has been a new milestone, one which I am grateful to have gone through while performing and receiving regular feedback. The vocal work in performance became essential to the reconstruction of my voice after starting testosterone, and my confidence when interacting with the world throughout the changes in and outside of my body. This is I’m sure the case for many others, regardless of their identity or physical appearance. I have seen students with severe speech impediments get onto stage and be able to speak clearly and with conviction.
On the work outside of ourselves
One of the most amazing things I’ve seen throughout the poetry community is mentorship. No one is afraid of revealing their secrets in regard to writing and performance technique – in fact, most poets I know actively seek opportunities to share their knowledge in workshops. We are all involved in building a community that communicates with each other effectively and gets to bring that to the rest of the world we interact with.
As performance poets, we also have the opportunity to use our words and our stories as activism. We use our lives and experiences to educate and inform, as a call-to-action, as commentary on what is happening in the world, on identifying the opposite sides of the fight and moving toward empathy, on general curiosity and the fire it insights in all who hear it, on those our work could effect whether we have met them or not.
Many live in communities that breed hate for who they are, and that is hard to escape. Today we are able to communicate with each other from other parts of the world and say, “Yes, I see you. I lived what you are living, it does not always end in flames. Someone will undoubtedly tell you otherwise, but only you are able to speak to your own truth.” This art form gives us the platform to speak that truth, to bear witness to it, and to connect with it even if it isn’t ours and become passionate allies for our chosen family.