By Christopher Johnson
For 10 years now, a group of Brown and RISD students crowd into a small space that for two hours a week is dedicated to poetry. There they produce some of the best spoken word shows in Providence.
It is Thursday night in the basement of Brown’s Rites and Reasons Theater. After a round robin of check ins, poetry ushers the silence through the doors and up the stairs like a unwanted house guest. Gabe, a sophomore, takes the lead: “The human body is roughly composed of 65% oxygen, 18% Carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, 1.4% calcium and a myriad of elements that cannot explain the chemistry between me and you.”
WORD! was started in 2003 by Sage Morgan-Hubbard as a space for marginalized voices – particularly students of color at Brown University. I started attending word meetings in 2006 and still go to this day. I have witnessed the magic beanstalk growth of freshman poetry enthusiasts that literally happens right before your eyes.
“WORD! to me has been a family of people with similar passions, who are willing to listen and explore art,” says Zachary Ballard, who describes himself as “a sad, sad senior” upon leaving Brown. “WORD! has acted as a buffer and support team between the page and the stage, and was absolutely critical in getting me to believe in my words,” he says.
“I haven’t come across many groups that develop so much love and support for each other in so little time,” says Chris “Coops” Cooper. “WORD! is a place that keeps me grounded and in some ways sane. The first WORD! show I was in is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. I’ve never been so overwhelmed and excited all at the same time. After that show, I felt I grew so much as a poet and a person.”
I ask Zaineb Syed, a Brown Junior, about her favorite WORD! moment: “The time Paul and I wrote a piece for the seniors of 2011,” she says. “That piece wasn’t written to be performed or for great writing. It was written with heart in mind, with sincerity and immense emotion. Reading it out in the basement… the silence that followed still gives me goose bumps; the words hit everyone in the room. There was so much love that day, it was hard to not notice it. It was the warmest I have ever been.”
Every WORD! performance I have attended packs the walls of Rites and Reasons, sometimes seating audience members on the floor in rows right up to the lip of the performance area. The shows occupy silence with not only the creative genius of the youth, but also unwarranted snaps, claps and foot stomps traditionally found at open mics and poetry slams.
WORD! is approaching its 10-year anniversary and having an alumni performance to celebrate, bringing poets spanning the decade back to Rhode Island for a weekend of writing workshops and a unprecedented grand performance. The show is set for February 22 at Rites and Reason Theater. Go, get warm.
There are regular free youth workshops at AS220. A writing workshop with Astrid Drew goes down there on February 24. Visit as220.org or the Providence Poetry Slam Facebook group page for information on upcoming events. Also, every Tuesday evening at Blue State Coffee, Got Poetry Live is hosted by Ryk McIntyre.