Dressed in a flow-y multicolored top and a black skirt, poet Krystle Sims is in front of a crowd at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center
recounting the tale of running to a neighbor's house to call the cops on her abusive stepfather. She punctuates her words with hand gestures, her eyes roaming the crowd in search of eye contact that belies understanding.
Like other spoken word poets, Sims knows that this style of poetry is as much about performance as it is about words. The social media specialist describes her poetry as "random" and "very organic": "If you see me performing at a spot three months from now and I'm doing the same poems, they'll sound completely different."
Sims is one of many Cincinnatians who use spoken word to find closure, inspiration, and in some cases, salvation. And for the audiences who embrace it, those poems become windows into the souls of their authors. Unlike "traditional" poetry, spoken word has its roots in hip hop, something of a cross between performance art and emceeing. There is no established meter count (iambic pentameter is non-existent); the power is in how poets connect with the people who are listening.
"The more traditional sense is that spoken word is primarily a performance-oriented medium coming out of a hip hop context, which foregrounds style over substance, while capital-P poetry is dusty old work that has passed the test of time and proven its great cultural worth," says Michael S. Hennessey, an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and the editor of two poetry-related websites run through the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing
. "Neither of those options is particularly attractive to me. Instead, I'd prefer a spoken word poetry that's finely attuned to the voice, to language and its possibilities, to the sounds that surround us.
"The beauty of this concept is that it's not limited by class, race, geography or education – it can have a great diversity as each individual captures the voices that are in their lives, since ultimately it's about a common spirit guiding expression and not a shared stylistic goal."
Xavier University English professor Tyrone Williams notes that traditional and spoken word poetry both have their merits, and in the best of cases, feed and nurture one another.
"A number of spoken word artists, like Saul Williams
, have talked about how print poetry has inspired their work," says Williams, a poet in his own right and author of several chapbooks. He's read his work at a number of venues around town, including the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
and Joseph-Beth Booksellers
. "At the same time, print poets, like M.L. Liebler
, have moved into performance poetry."
Williams says that writing poetry comes from the need to put the world into context.
"At first poets write to make sense of a world that has somehow already failed them, even in their teens," he says. "But if you keep doing it, there's an aesthetic pleasure simply in doing it for its own sake even as one engages large issues in the world."
For Dawn "Wisdom" Crooks, it's definitely the performance aspect of spoken word that keeps her going. "I started off as a rapper in 1987," says Crooks, the admissions director at Tiffin University's Cincinnati Academic Center
. "I stopped performing in 1995 but kept writing. Then Russell Simmons introduced the world to Def Poetry Jam and I was reunited with performance."
Over the years, Crooks has hosted several open mic nights around the city and recently took part in The Coochie Chronicles
, a spoken word stage play about the lives and relationships of black women, performed at the Aronoff Center last month. The play will be released on DVD later this year.
"Most of my poetry is written with purpose, a specific lesson in mind," she says. "If I can inspire young women to value themselves, young men to stand up and be accountable, and our community to move toward liberation, then I have honored the gift I was given."
Whatever your tastes, those interested in reading, performing or just listening can find a mishmash of poetry events throughout the city. From the Lyrical Insurrection
showcase every other Sunday at the Greenwich to readings at UC, Xavier and Miami to academic-community mash-ups at venues like Thunder-Sky Inc.
, the offerings are abundant.
"I was happily surprised to find like-minded poets teaching at local schools or just living here, along with a lot of eager and talented grad students," says Hennessey, who moved to Cincinnati three years ago from Philadelphia. "It's truly lovely to be a part of an intimate little scene of wonderful writers."
Sims, a New Orleans native, agrees. "I love Cincinnati and the poetry scene," she says. "I like that everybody is just so welcoming and warm. But that's the poetry community for you, because poets reach out. It's who they are."
All photos by Scott Beseler.
Top: Microphone at Know Theatre, Krystle Sims, Michael Hennessey and Tyrone Williams.