On a Friday night in the East Village of Manhattan, a diverse crowd of 250 people in chairs, on the floor and standing shoulder to shoulder packs the historic Nuyorican Poetry Cafe to hear poetry. Princess Souvenir, a Detroit native, sits in the audience waiting for the show to begin. Unapologetically defining herself as “spiritual” as opposed to religious, she believes that poetry venues are in a sense “spiritual… you hear and grow from it, it liberates you.”
Princess is not alone. Many who attend poetry venues like the Nuyorican sense that something spiritual is going on. Not only is the poetry live and engaging, but people are getting a consistent dose of faith, hope and spiritual connection.
The first poets on stage tonight are the Baltimore spoken word duo, The 5th L. In their twenty-minute interactive set, they speak on such themes as putting action into practice and protecting our children. After them, a male poet reads a poem entitled, “A Prayer for Gaza”. Three poets follow him, each with spiritual themes and biblical references. Just like preachers, they use passion and thoughtful ideas to illuminate issues of everyday living.
A spiritual encounter
Native Son , a 5th L member, says not only is the audience having a spiritual encounter, but the artists are as well: “When I perform poems that I’ve written, sometimes it might sound a bit ‘preachy.’ But as I perform, it’s not always a message for my audience. Sometimes it is a reminder to myself… to correct things that I believe are wrong in my own life.”
While churches across the country are striving to appeal to this young demographic, this unconscious spiritual technique is working in poetry venues. Sherri Wright, a Brooklyn resident who sits at the back of the venue with a friend, believes there is an important difference between the church and poetry venues. “It’s more real than church,” she explains. “In church a lot is sugarcoated and it doesn’t address issues on a day-to-day basis. This is raw. In church they are talking at you… here you can relate. Its not preachy”.
I am a part of what’s going on at the Nuyorican tonight, not merely as an audience member and journalist, but as what some may consider a poetry veteran. I became a part of the spoken word poetry scene in 2000. One year later, I was licensed as a minister in the AME Church. Nine years later, I am still performing on stage and preaching in church. While my poetic style may have changed, my message is still the same: holistic empowerment.
Poetry is my way to bring a message to others who may never enter a church. And while I do not mention Jesus often, his spirit of healing and enlightenment still flows in between each line. I am passionate about poetry because it provides an opportunity to be creative and empowering at the same time. It allows me to go beyond the walls of the traditional church and into bars and cafes to share my spiritual revelations and even my human failures, artistically.
In my own church ministry, I have learned how to minister more effectively through my work as a poet. Poetry venues have taught me what seminary failed to really convey: that connection to people and honesty with them allows any message to flow easily. And it is here on stage, five steps from a bar full of people, where the secular meets the sacred and, even as an ordained clergy person, I feel right at home.
Different venues, more messages of inspiration
Six days later a young, hipster crowd packs the Bowery Poetry Club to witness something very similar. Tonight the five-member poetry collective known as Writer’s Block has sponsored a standing room only night of music and poetry. Jason Reynolds is the first poet to speak. His poem is a prayer; at play is the issue of theodicy. He begins by saying: “On blue collar brown colored knees I knelt/I figured I’ll tell God how I felt/about the cards I’ve been dealt.” His message is clear: while we are asking God why he let certain things happen, God is asking us the same thing. It’s a prayer of vulnerability and a call to accountability.
Female poet Falu, approaches the microphone next and uses 2 Chronicles 7:14 to open up her poem about President Barack Obama. Next, Soulful Jones urges the audience to use their “inside voice and follow their intuition.” It is these young poets who will give audiences — who may or may not attend a religious institution that weekend — messages that inspire and challenge them in their daily lives.
Gia Hamilton is in the crowd at the Bowery. She says attending poetry venues has helped her believe: “Sometimes [poems] can be a little cliché, but there are times when a poet says something… and it makes me remember what hope is and know that I should continue to believe in myself and in everything else and everyone else.”
This phenomenon of poetry meeting spirituality is happening in other parts of the country too. E the Poet Emcee, creator of The Art of Conversation in Baltimore, Maryland, believes that people come out because “there’s a part of them that is seeking communion on a mental and spiritual level that they are missing in their day to day life.”
In Sacramento, California, Khiry Malik, creator of The Mahagony Poetry Series, tells the story of a guy who approached him in a bar after a poetry reading. He acknowledged to Khiry that he was depressed and was thinking suicidal thoughts. However, hearing his poem lifted his spirits and he no longer felt alone. “I’m not saying that my poem alone saved his life”, Khiry explains. “But it gave him hope, and he was able to stand there and tell me his story.”
What keeps people coming out to poetry venues is not just the literary experience, but the raw, inspiring and communal message being shared. It is here where all kinds of people, the religious, the spiritual, the nonreligious, and the unchurched, come together under one roof to hear artistic words that spark thought, change and hope. People are being uplifted in these venues as words are being uttered through what poet Soulful Jones describes as “messiahs manifested in microphones.”