“Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,” sang Davina Stewart, with a mysterious pitch emanating from her voice. “Catch a ni-er by his toe.”
Stewart used her body well during the performance, often role-playing and referencing problems that lead members of urban communities to become prisoners. The poet managed to effectively bring to attention the woes of crime-stricken areas and familial hardships within African American communities.
As if under some divine influence, Stewart’s performance moved even some of the more stoic audience members to tears. She began by explaining how poetry saved her life as a college freshman and proceeded to read a letter from her imprisoned cousin.
Raw and uncensored, her verse was part of a stirring half-hour poetry performance that artfully covered topics from earthly spiritual connections to domestic cruelty.
Stewart was one of several neighborhood poets who sought an outlet for her social conscience at the A-Space, or Anarchist Community Center, in West Philadelphia on Friday, March 23 for the recurring event “Poems Not Prisons.” The project is a monthly event held to benefit political prisoners with both donated collections and innovative ideas to suggest bold political reparations.
At the event, performers did not shy from using vulgarity or mature motifs in their work. Hosts thanked audience members for bringing their children, who seemed slightly squeamish during the occasional F-bomb or candid sexual reference.
The language of the metaphor moved the night as both practiced and amateur poets from various ages took a turn ranting, chanting, stammering and singing their deepest confessions and most sincere societal concerns. A diverse set of the night’s performers ranged from bashful adolescents to practiced middle-aged poets and even former Temple professors. Anyone can perform at the events. Some poets are connected to hosts through lengthy friendships, while others simply walked in off the streets.
The night had an intimate feel, and a strange familiarity was shared among performers and audience members.
“It’s really informal. We’re all friends,” said Martin Wiley, coordinator of Poems Not Prisoners.
Wiley, an articulate 35 year old performer of poetry and member of the group of friends who founded the event about seven years ago
“A lot of us know people in prison, or have friends in prison,” Wiley said about the event’s continuous theme. Political issues such as drug laws, three strike laws and the death penalty generally inspire the main subject matter for Poems Not Prisons, although poems with other themes are welcomed.
The A-Space itself is humble, only slightly larger than a narrow classroom.
“[The space] serves an important role in the city and in our neighborhood,” Wiley said. “…People can hear new ideas, discover new ways of thinking and push themselves and others to see the world from a different angle.”
Founded in 1991, the space is a public facility shared among volunteers who run events and projects like Poems Not Prisons. The public domain provides space for groups wishing to spread culture through lectures, art exhibits and film. Upkeep, utility payments and decisions concerning the space are some of the responsibilities shared among those who use it.
Despite its limited capacity, the room’s sensory dimensions stretched physical boundaries as poets recited stanzas with energy while a sensual mist of incense smoke lingered overhead.
The event is moderately popular among West Philadelphians. “We’ve had anywhere from four or five to 70 people show up,” said Wiley.
Spoken word poetry, however, seems to be something of a shrinking breed.
“When we first started, there were a lot of great poetry slams every month. The Painted Bride hosted a slam every month [and] there were at least two a week in Philly. Today there’s really not as many. I don’t know why that is,” said Wiley.
A dwindling slam population is probably due to a lack of interest rather than a lack of talent – the individuals who performed on the 23rd demonstrated an impressive poetic prowess.
Poems Not Prisons coordinator Duiji MsHinda is eagerly anticipating the arrival of his CD of poetry, “Infinite Ferocity.” Gentle-seeming and soft-spoken, MsHinda recited his poems with an aggressive bellow and a rhythmic mastery that rivals your favorite rapper. Having been once admitted to a mental hospital, MsHinda used his steady flow of puns and metaphors to convey the miseries of a different type of prison.
He chose to disclose his personal past to the audience before beginning his performance, revealing that he was admitted to the hospital, “For being mentally ill without health insurance,” he said with a discreetly wry casualness.
“When you perform it [poetry], you give life to your words,” Duiji said about his poetic delivery style. “It’s harder if it’s personal. It’s more exposing it … It’s my gift so I’ll share it.”
Poems Not Prisons
Last Friday of every month
Friday, April 27 featuring Innocence Bellow
4722 Baltimore Ave.
Caitlyn Conefry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.