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Learning to Speak for Yourself

BU club provides forum where poets can nurture their voices

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A dozen students gather in a circle in a College of Arts & Sciences classroom on a recent Tuesday evening as Jay Schwartz goes around the room asking each to tell one lucky and one unlucky thing that happened that week. The icebreaker is a warm-up for the real work at hand. Schwartz next gives the group seven minutes to write a haiku. Pens and pencils scribble furiously and laptops tap as the students write their 3-line, 17-syllable poem.

Welcome to Speak for Yourself, BU’s spoken word–slam poetry club. For the uninitiated, spoken word poetry is primarily performance-based, where the focus is on body language, gestures, tone, and facial expressions as well as words.

“As a team we challenge each other. We listen to each other’s voices and pick up on motives and trends within the group,” says Schwartz (CAS’14, COM’14). “When we critique, it’s always about the poem and not the poet. While Speak for Yourself is an amazing support group, we’re not at meetings to discuss the life events behind the poem. For many, writing is a remedy, but we are not a therapy group.”

This night, the group members read their haikus and casually talk about one another’s efforts. They then watch a video of poet and activist Andrea Gibson reading her poem “A letter to my dog, exploring the human condition,” a funny, moving, and entertaining homage to her beloved pet. They discuss the poem, talking about what they feel works—or doesn’t—what resonates most with them. After that comes a series of exercises designed to get them thinking about tonality, voice modulation, and body language. In one of the exercises, a screen at the front of the room flashes poems by noted poet and performer Jeanann Verlee, author of Racing Hummingbirds (Write Bloody Press, 2010) while each member stands to read selections. While they read, another student moves an arm up or down, signaling the reader to abruptly alter pitch. The exercise provokes much laughter.

In the video above, Schwartz performs a poem about his Jewish heritage.

When Speak for Yourself launched in 2006, it was designed specifically to be a slam poetry club. It has since evolved into a forum for people, poetically inclined or otherwise, to come in and express themselves through the spoken word. It’s a chance for poets and slam fans to read, get feedback, form friendships, and connect with the larger spoken word community in Boston. In addition to weekly meetings, Speak for Yourself sponsors workshops with well-known spoken word poets and open mic events throughout the semester so developing poets can showcase their work.

“It’s been so interesting to see the group grow and evolve from what it was like when I was a little kid sitting in the audience,” says Kristina Saliba (COM’16), whose brother Samer (CAS’08) founded the club with Justin Lamb (COM’07). “It’s been fascinating to see how each member brings something different to the table.”

“Our club has never been bigger than it is this year,” says Schwartz. There are about 20 members who attend regularly, but some weeks the crowd is so large that club officers have to find a larger classroom. “I feel like the poets that are joining the group are more peppy and hungry than ever before. We push people to write more and think more and feel more,” he says, adding, “What else could you ask for on a Tuesday night?”

To find out more about the group, visit the BU Speak for Yourself Facebook page.

Vijayta Narang can be reached at vjnarang@bu.edu.

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