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Video by Saba Aregai and Justin McGoldrick. Edited by Saba Aregai.
Dennis Caulk Jr., the assistant art director of Babel, finds solace in sharing his stories.
Dennis Caulk Jr. is no stranger to the spotlight and center stage. The sophomore transfer student and African-American studies major has opened for Christian music heavyweights, such as Juanita Bynum, and produced and sold two albums of his own gospel poetry.
On Feb. 3, Temple’s poetry collective, Babel, presented its spoken word and open-mic showcase, Babylon.
As Babel’s assistant artistic director, Caulk’s powerful piece delivered on Thursday, “The AIDS Song,” which was dedicated to anyone living with HIV unknowingly. He fused his own rendition of the Foogies’ “Killing Me Softly” with an intimate account of HIV’s love affair with a man’s body.
Chocolate Milk, the show’s house band of the night, kept the mood a perfect jazz cafe-like atmosphere, especially with its energetic and exuberant singer.
The open-mic portion of the show was a mixture of Babel poets, singers as well as entertainers, and guest appearances from other spoken word groups.
Among the performers were founder and leader Malcolm Kenyatta, a senior communications major, who performed a piece about the unity between words and the heart. Evan Fuller, a sophomore English major, who recited his poem “The Head of Christ.”
Theater professor Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon went from singing to speaking spoken-word poetry, back to singing. She moved the audience most with her delivery of one of her older pieces, “So Now you Call me a Bitch.”
As the son of a minister, it was no surprise that Caulk was able to stand out effortlessly among the sea of great performances. Caulk blended the message of Christianity and the Bible through poetry.
Caulk formed his own ministry, recorded two full-length albums, “I’m Charging You” and “He is Who I Am” and opened for gospel preachers and artists at various venues. However, he stepped away from his role as a gospel poet when he said he no longer felt that his life aligned with his words.
“I was serious about being Christian and conforming my life to Christianity and everything the Bible said,” Caulk said. “And there were some things inside of me that the Bible said were wrong so I wanted God to take them out of me.”
After a period of self-reflection and introspection, Caulk not only came to terms with his homosexuality but decided to leave his Christian faith and his connection to the black church behind.
“It took me until I was 21 to finally be ready to say ‘I am who I am, and God has to love me because he made me. I don’t understand everything about that, but I’ll understand it better. Today is the last day that I will deny anything about who I am,’” he said.
Although his split from his relationship with Christianity and the church sounds like a tale of liberation and freedom, it was fear and trepidation that Caulk said he felt first – fear of leaving behind a doctrine and a second home in his church, and trepidation about moving forward into a more genuine direction.
He said during that time he took an unintentional hiatus from writing that lasted a little more than a year. When he did place pen to paper again, his voice had a renewed energy, and his message had a stronger intensity.
“The first collection I did following my Christian poetry was called the ‘Make Me’ collection,” Caulk added. “It wasn’t talking about God. It was talking about people who just don’t know who they are and who are trying to be made into what they would like to be. There were definitely a few pieces that went hard on where I used to be and definitely advocated for where I am now.”
By the time the then 23-year-old arrived at Temple in the fall of 2009 he had evolved into a different artist with a different style and was eager to find a group of people he could bond with over his renewed passion for spoken word. A chance encounter led him to Temple’s spoken word crusaders, Babel.
“When I first came to Temple I really wanted to get connected with a group that I could connect with on an artistic level,” Caulk said. “So I went to the computer lab and just started talking to this girl randomly, because that’s what you do when you don’t really know people – you just talk to people and hope you fall upon someone cool.
“I told her that I liked poetry and wanted to meet people [who are] into spoken word on campus. The first thing she talked about was Babel and Malcolm Kenyatta,” Caulk added.
After contacting Kenyatta, Caulk auditioned for the selective group and found out he was accepted the same night.
“[Kenyatta] called me that night and said I was in Babel,” Caulk. “From that very moment I was very excited to share my poetry, to share my work and to share my experiences.”
Caulk said his first taste of Temple notoriety came at an event last year called PhilaLive, hosted by Temple and Babel alumna Arianna Santiago.
“I performed a piece called ‘The Prostitution of Higher Learning,’ and it was really well received,” Caulk said. “It was awesome and everyone really enjoyed it.”
He credits Santiago for not only giving him the performance spot in the show but for helping him develop his artistic delivery for his poetry.
“Arianna really challenged me when I did that piece and told me that she wanted me to actually step out of my comfort zone and break up the rhymes and really sell it as a performance,” Caulk said. “That helped me see that to my poetry there should be an extra element of performance and presentation, and that I need to make my physical actions and appearance as interesting as my words.”
Later that year, Babel hosted the famed poet Nikki Giovanni, and Caulk took the stage as her opening act. The event was a platform for him to share his creativity and generate more buzz about himself as an artist.
“I shared a poem about being on the down-low and the audience was really crazy in the way that they reacted to it,” Caulk said. “People were really starting to know about me at that time.”
He fueled his growing reputation and knack for garnering widely varying responses to his performances, at last year’s Babylon show in a very controversial performance that culminated in him ripping pages from a book that resembled the Bible.
“[Kenyatta] told me that people were very upset and offended, and that’s fine because people are going to react however they want to, and I accept all reaction both good and bad,” Caulk said. “I’m used to getting a mixture of admiration and offense.”
Caulk said if someone in the audience of one of his performances squirms in their seat from discomfort, he’s achieved his goal.
“It excites me when people are offended – my poetry is intended to make you uncomfortable,” Caulk said. “That means that I actually got through to someone. If something in one of my poems bothered you then there was something in my message that needed to prick you in order for you to grow.”
Caulk is slowly carving his own niche within Babel and the Philly spoken word scene. Caulk said he helps cultivate conviction, character and action-oriented performance in poems, and that stepping up to his current position in Babel has shaped him for the better.
“I don’t think I would be the writer that I am today if it had not been for the critiques I’ve gotten from Babel,” he said.
Angelo Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.