‘Strivers Row’ defies conventional poetry rules to stun UNL crowd

Lincoln, Neb. — The Strivers Row, a group of spoken word artists, took to the stage last week at the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center. (Courtesy photo)

Story and photos by Mekita Rivas, NewsNetNebraska

Stomp, shout, shriek, repeat.

These are just some of the reactions you might have to a performance by The Strivers Row. The group doesn’t write the kind of poetry found in English 101 textbooks.

“A lot of their poems addressed things that anybody could relate to,” said Marissa Grooms, a sophomore agronomy major. “It was interesting because of the audience reactions and the way they spoke to everyone in the room.”

Senior psychology and pre-med major Katherine Vestakis (left) discusses her favorite poems from the performance with poet Alysia Harris (right)

At its most essential form, slam poetry is the marriage of spoken word and theatrical performance. Slam poets don’t just recite their work – they bring it to life with animated body language, large vocal inflections and, most importantly, feedback from the audience.

Whenever a poet says something that resonates with you, the point of a slam poetry performance is to express those feelings in an open, inviting environment. Whether it’s a foot stomp, a shriek, a clap or a combination of all of the above, the crowd plays an integral role in the experience of live poetry.

Although some in attendance had read or heard about The Strivers Row, few realized their performance would be so emotionally charged.

“It was a lot more intense than what I expected,” said Aaron Kloke, a first-year community and regional planning graduate student. “I’m definitely going to check them out more. I started following them on Twitter, so that’s a start.”

Bringing slam poetry to the Midwest

Last Friday, the University Program Council, in collaboration with the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center, sponsored “Spoken Soirée.” The poetry showcase featured The Strivers Row, an artist collective hailing from New York City that represents seven spoken word artists and one singer.

Five of those artists, Joshua Bennett, Alysia Harris, Miles Hodges, Zora Howard and Jasmine Mans, presented their performance poetry to a packed house at the Gaughan Center.

“Our expectations for the event were definitely exceeded,” said David Lopez, a senior business administration and psychology major and UPC member. “They’re big on the east coast, so we knew they had a good fan base, but we weren’t sure how they would be received in the Midwest. I think that it went extremely well to completely fill the room.”

UPC estimates 230 people were in attendance, with people standing along the walls of the Unity Room on the second floor of the Gaughan Center.

The Strivers Row poets gather with UPC members and representatives from the Gaughan Center for a group photo.

Spoken word rooted in intellectualism and swag

Despite their many accolades – Bennett, for instance, is a University of Pennsylvania graduate turned Marshall Scholar who is now pursuing a doctorate at Princeton University – and a reputation as some of the top slam poets in the world, the group evokes a sense of down-to-earthness that, perhaps, makes their poetry that much more meaningful.

“I started a small drug cartel in Brooklyn when I was about nine and all of that fell through,” Bennett joked when asked why he chose poetry as an outlet of self-expression.

In reality, Bennett attended a Hurricane Katrina relief benefit when he was 17. There, he was exposed to spoken word for the first time.

“I was blown away,” Bennett said. “I heard this amazing spoken word show that was two straight hours of just fire. After that, I wrote my first poem and I never turned back.”

Bennett received a standing ovation from President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama when he performed his poem “Tamara’s Opus” at the White House in 2009.

Outside the poet’s arena

“I love short fiction, I love music, but for me, there’s just something about the experience of both writing and performing an original piece of work that speaks to my soul in a particular way,” Bennett said. “I think education is pivotal and not just formal education necessarily, but also the ways in which you learn from the world.”

Harris, also a Penn graduate currently working toward her doctorate at Yale University, reinforced the idea of a global perspective being critical to understanding poetry’s relevance in the 21st century.

“In Egypt, for instance, poetry is still really relevant but also revered,” Harris said. “People quote poetry and people write poetry. I think that in America, we don’t want to work for things. We want things that are easily hand-delivered and very transparent – poetry is not like that.”

Instead, Harris explained, poetry is a sequence of recognitions – first with the self and, ultimately, with all of humanity.

“Poetry is common to all people,” Harris said. “It’s sort of the feeling you get when you’re in awe or in reverence of something. When people recognize that, and recognize that poetry is just simply recognizing the truth of all human experiences, people would realize how relevant it actually is.”

Josh Bennett on YouTube

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