Miriam Harris decided to try something different. She ordered a large raspberry mocha.
“Fruit flavored coffee is just disgusting. I’m going to finish, it though,” Harris said, humming along to an Amy Winehouse song. She took another sip. “I paid $5 for this.”
Harris is used to stepping outside familiar territory. As the president of Babel, Temple’s spoken-word poetry group, the junior English major with a concentration in creative writing was recently at Fordham University in New York City, where she and two other members of the group, Effy Fritz and Jared Dobkin, opened a show for their fellow member and artist, Kai Davis.
The opportunity came to Davis as an independent performance for Fordham students. She brought Harris, Fritz and Dobkin to be her opening acts. The trip was unassociated with Temple and Babel and offered each of the performers the experience of being independent artists.
“I’ve performed at open mics in Baltimore and Philly, and I’ve always wanted to pursue more opportunities like this,” Harris said. “But I was shocked that we had been invited there and filled a whole room of people that wanted to see us.”
In preparation for the performance, Davis selected poems for the other performers that fit with her set, so the entire performance would be cohesive.
“We all spend so much time performing poetry together, so she knows all of our poems,” Harris said. “She told us which to perform and we practiced them in our heads and then to each other, and then we went on. We have it down to an art form because we do it so often.”
Fritz said the two-hour trip to the Bronx for their performance resembled nothing else but the epitome of the struggling artist.
“[Dobkin’s] heater is broken, so we huddled for warmth and ate yogurt to comfort us and sang along to Beyoncé, much to [Dobkin’s] chagrin,” Fritz said.
As Babel typically performs as a large unit for its two yearly performances, Harris said performing with only three other poets made her less anxious, but more aware of her own performance.
“It felt really good to have my stuff stand on its own, and it made me realize that maybe I can do this poetry thing,” Harris said.
As for the performance itself, Fritz said the crowd was responsive and enthusiastic, which provided an opportunity for the intended exchange of energy between the artist and audience during spoken word.
“It’s awkward for you to bear your soul in front of all of these people if they aren’t responsive,” Harris said. “A lot of people are conservative when it comes to performances because that is the way we’re trained to be, so whenever we get on stage, we remind them that we want to hear from them. We want to hear the snapping, cheering and the booing. And they were just really into it.”
For Harris, the performance was unique because it was so intimate. The space had no stage, so she initially avoided the audience’s stares.
“Eventually I was able to connect, and there was a point when eye contact was made,” Harris said. “I could feel the exchange. It’s like, five minutes ago we were complete strangers, and now you really know me.”
For artists like Harris and Fritz, the interesting thing about poetry is that it is not to entertain, but it is a part of who they are.
“Oftentimes, poetry on the page is up to interpretation, but when someone tells you a story, you know exactly what they were intending to tell you,” Harris said. “It’s really a way of linking people together.”
Spoken-word poetry incorporates elements of theater, making it distinct from written prose.
“Polishing your work is detaching and examining it,” Harris said. “The poem has to be received and performed, and there is this element of theater to it. People have less time to react to spoken word than they do to written poetry.”
After the show, students approached the artists and gave them feedback.
“They were all really grateful and nice and wanted to talk about social issues,” Fritz said. “They wanted to take pictures with us, and it was just humbling. It felt great to know that someone respects all of our work.”
Emily Rolen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.