Decolonizing Space Through Words: Amherst Hosts “Voices 2017”

Decolonizing Space Through Words: Amherst Hosts “Voices 2017”

This past weekend,Amherst College’s student-run La Causa hosted its 20th annual Voices event, the largest free spoken word concert in New England. Voices’ mission is to bring poets of color from across the country together in one space for a weekend of decolonizing the arts through slam poetry that revolves around the subject of marginalized people’s experiences. Both professional and student poets performed their work to a packed Powerhouse with food provided by Fernandez Family Restaurant, a Puerto Rican establishment in Holyoke. As always, Voices ended up being both a lively night filled with a warm familial feeling, as well as a beautiful showcase of creative talent. Most importantly, it was a safe space for those willing to share and relate to traumatic experiences and harsh truths about living as a person of a marginalized race, gender or sexuality.

On Saturday, the event started off with a piece by Irisdelia Garcia ’18, who had won the student Slam Poetry Contest at LimeRed, which had kicked off the celebration the previous night. One of the most well-known and prolific spoken word artists on campus, Garcia recited a poem about the humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Irma. Her poem brought up images of bodies, both accounted for and anonymous, that now fill the morgues and float in the waters, evoking feelings of despair and of mourning. It also spoke to the perspectives of those on the U.S. mainland who may have sympathy to a certain extent but do not feel the destruction on the same level. At the end of the poem, Garcia offered a powerful image of her people descending from a long line of resilience. Her poems often deal with themes of Puerto Rican identity and the morphing of the body over time in a colonialist space. Garcia hails from the Bronx but has family in Puerto Rico, and her poem left the entire audience, most of whom had witnessed her performative prowess before, feeling a respectful camaraderie.

Before the poets took the stage, emcees Silvana Romero ’19 and Lea Morin ’21 brought up one of the most unique aspects of slam poetry: the fact that audience members participate in the performance by letting their voices be heard when something the poet says speaks to them in some way. As Romero said, “This is not an event where you’re meant to sit quietly and politely applaud afterward.” Having the audience express solidarity with the performers’ experiences or voice support for and validity of them is one of the essential steps toward decolonizing the arts and “taking them out of the ivory tower” as Romero said. The poets who performed included current college students as well as more seasoned artists, and all of them brought their lives to the stage, whether they were funny, tragic or both.

The performers’ main way of engaging with the audience was to state the theme of their poem right before reciting it. For example, Ariana Brown, when reciting a poem about the legacy of black women, said, “Make some noise if you’re a black woman.” Then, in response to the outburst of noise, she said, “This one is for you.” This call-and-response audience engagement showcases the intersectionality of slam poetry.

Voices was originally conceived as a concert featuring only Latino poets, but in recent years, it has expanded to include poets of all marginalized groups. Given that the call-and-response practice was conceived of by African slaves brought to the Americas, it seems just that African-American and other performers of African descent would have place in this concert. Fittingly enough, the first professional poet perfectly encapsulated the intersections between black and Latino identities.
Ariana Brown is a black Mexican-American poet from San Antonio, known for her poems about healing and spirituality centered around black and brown women. One of the poems that got the biggest response from the audience was about Spanish in American elementary schools, and her offense at white classmates treating the language as a hobby. Her other poems included works with themes of black women, self-love, depression and colonialism. Brown spoke with confidence but also a slight treble, stating that she wants for her poems to uplift black working class communities like the one she grew up in. She closed her set with one of her most powerful lines: “If you are alive, you are descended from a people that refused to die.”

Hieu Minh Nguyen was next up, a queer Vietnamese-American poet from Minneapolis. It was apparent that he was much different from Brown: more extroverted and boasting a more traditionally humorous side. However, he began to take us on a psychological journey into his past almost immediately, with stories about his grandmother’s fight with Alzheimer’s, his being forced to learn English at an early age and the double-edged sword of memory, both on a micro-level within his own family and a macro-level regarding the history of Asians in America. In one of the more haunting images, Nguyen described growing up in America as feeling like being painted over into something socially acceptable, saying he can “still feel the brushstrokes on my tongue.”

Jacqui Germain was the last performer that I saw, a poet and student organizer from St. Louis who focuses much of her work on the city of St. Louis and its history as a site of black, brown and indigenous resistance. She recited poems based on being tear-gassed at the Ferguson riots, a fictionalized version of Nat Turner visiting Washington D.C. and a rant toward Quentin Tarantino and his movie “Django Unchained.” Germain’s tone was more that of an activist than the first two poets’, and her poems described resilience in the face of physical violence.

Other performing poets included Black Ice, Terisa Siagatonu, Mayda Del Valle and Alas Nocturnas.
“Voices 2017” was a restorative night of creative talent from brilliant, radical artists of color. It lived up to its promise to decolonize a space in the arts that often does not make room for them. La Causa and the poets that performed provided a space where healing, knowledge and camaraderie was possible for Amherst’s people of color.