Power of the verse
Spoken word trending off the page and onto the stages of central Arkansas with the help of Foreign Tongues.
"Go in, Poet!”
Call it the official cheer of spoken word. Through the haze of a darkened theater, it’s hard to see who shouts it first. But it always comes at the right time. Someone forgets a line. The tension in a piece builds. A new face takes the stage. A voice cracks with emotion.
“Go in, Poet!”
It may be a theater event at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, but Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Piece, a spoken word series by Little Rock’s Foreign Tongues, is hardly maintaining the fourth wall. People gently clap or snap subdued appreciation during softer moments. Some prefer a nod and smile as the expertly sharpened words from Foreign Tongues find a home with the audience. Nobody relates to everything, but everybody relates to something. Even kids lost in the glow of their phones are tuned-in long enough to Tweet a line or two.
The night is part church, part school assembly, part family reunion. And the place is packed. Late-comers linger in the back of the auditorium and groups in the balcony settle in on the floor when chairs run out.
It’s hard to tell just how many are there to support the high school students who took the stage early in the night last Saturday, and who came for Foreign Tongues. But it doesn’t matter — people stay, and they’re listening.
“Poetry on steroids” — that’s how members of Foreign Tongues describe their art. A couple of days before Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Piece, four Foreign Tongues members — A.P.O.L.L.O., Chris James, Osyrus Bolly and Ron Mc — are gathered at the Main Library in downtown Little Rock to discuss their art form and the reasons behind last Saturday’s event at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center.
The spoken word at Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Piece is different from the rat-a-tat-tat energy of events such as the Southern Fried Poetry Slam, an annual slam poetry event Foreign Tongues competes in. Poetry slams are intense affairs. Three minutes of verbal pugilism. Spoken word is more fluid. The words can arrive rapid fire, but spoken word pieces can also be slowed down and even include singing and other sounds beyond just words. Sometimes the pieces follow poetic devices. Other times the spoken word is more free form.
The pieces can involve dancing and other choreographed moments. Even props. Some spoken word pieces are performed by ensembles. Spoken word is visual and auditory.
“I would say it’s poetry in the life form,” Chris James says. “It actually brings [poetry] to life. It’s more visual and choreographed.”
Foreign Tongues formed about three years ago, inspired by TV programs such as HBO’s Def Poetry or Verses & Flow, but members of the group have been spoken word artists for years. (The other members of Foreign Tongues are Tru Poet, Drekkia Writes and Stacey McAdoo. There are two inactive members: Coffy Davis and TJ Medel.) A.P.O.L.L.O. first started writing and performing spoken word six years ago following the death of his parents. The art form helped him cope. “It was therapeutic,” he says. “I was a closet poet.”
Chris James and Osyrus Bolly have been involved in spoken word for four and eight years, respectively. For Chris James, it helps build “my identity as a person.”
Ron Mc is the elder of the group gathered at the Main Library. The Power 92 Jams on-air personality is one of the forefathers of the Little Rock hip-hop scene, having founded The Legendary Backyard hip-hop-based arts collective back in 1992 with his brother The RazorMack. Spoken word is another manifestation of that hip-hop history, Ron Mc says.
“Hip-hop is living through my poetry,” he says. “The whole love of language that I developed through hip-hop is what I use now when I write poetry.”
Foreign Tongues takes its direction from groups such as the Last Poets and The Watts Prophets, late ‘60s and early ‘70s spoken word groups that laid the foundation for rap. But there are other influences as well: Tupac to ministers to politicians to fellow Foreign Tongues members to well-known poets such as Sunni Patterson, Pablo Neruda and Saul Williams.
The spoken word pieces of the group vary in length. Some are as short as three minutes (which is also the length of the usual slam poetry piece when artists are judged on their time). Inspiration for the pieces arrives from life. Topics differ. Pieces might be about childhood experiences, current events, emotions such as love or the loss of friends and family members. But each is created with a reaction in mind.
“I want [audience members] ... to cry; I want them to think; I want them to laugh because poetry is basically my life, but we are all the same as humans,” A.P.O.L.L.O. says. “We are all different, but we are all really the same. I want you to see that poetry cannot be put inside a box. Many times when people think of poetry they think of one person with a notepad in front of a mic. But it is so much bigger with so much more variety than a person standing behind a microphone.
“My poetry is not about rocket ships and moonbeams. I’m just a normal guy who can articulate what goes on in my life.”
Do the guys get nervous? The question is obvious. Knowing there’s a stage in front of a roomful of people where soon they’ll stand solo, and bare otherwise hidden pieces of their psyche while reciting a three-minute long spoken word piece is a good enough reason for anxiousness.
So, nervousness? Perhaps not enough, Ron Mc says, but Osyrus Bolly says, “I get nervous in the opposite way. We get in front of like 400 people and I just forget about it all, but in a small room, I’d be nervous.”
And what happens if a spoken word artist messes up? Freestyle it. Or, if delivering a group piece, another artist might fill in the gap. But the group is exhaustive in its memorization.
A.P.O.L.L.O. creates his pieces using Microsoft Word. A dedicated slam poet competitor, most of his pieces are around three minutes long. Using Times New Roman, 12-point font, he knows “a page and a half is roughly three minutes. It’s hard for me to sometimes write past that.” He learns in three line segments: memorizing three lines, saving those three lines away in his mind and learning three more lines. Ron Mc says his pieces are “short and sweet,” and he relies on his background in rapping when memorizing and performing his pieces. For Chris James, it’s learning a stanza at a time.
And Osyrus Bolly? “I don’t know how I memorize the stuff,” he says. “It’s difficult. I have a hard time memorizing. Then I’m old school and write on paper so I’m turning pages and a lot of time I memorize the actual sheet of paper. In my mind I see myself turning the paper. I always know the last and first lines to keep it connected.”
Last Saturday night at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center might have been the first Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Piece event, but it won’t be the last. The group hopes the evening of spoken word becomes a bimonthly event and an event that brings bigger spoken word artists to Little Rock.
The event was free because the group wants curious individuals checking it out. Plus, free means families of limited means can experience art. “You have a mom with three kids and it’s $5?,” A.P.O.L.L.O. says. “That’s $20. Take that $20 and go buy something else. Plus, I don’t think you can put a monetary value on my poetry. You can’t pay me what it’s worth.”
The night of spoken word also included younger performers from outside the Foreign Tongues group. Members say they want growth in the local spoken word scene and reaching out to children and youth is the first step. A.P.O.L.L.O., Chris James, Osyrus Bolly and Ron Mc are involved in the local education system in some regard, and the group hopes that events such as Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Piece show that “poetry is cool,” as Ron Mc says. “Poetry can be this great experience. Poetry can be free.”
“Let your voice be heard,” Chris James says. That’s the point of spoken word. That’s the point of Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Piece. “You got one chance so grab the opportunity. We’re trying to make people more passionate about poetry.”
As the event at Mosaic Templars Cultural Center wraps up, the members of Foreign Tongues reunite on stage for a bow. After 45 minutes of group pieces and short solo work, the audience is ready to stretch. It’s Saturday night and a few groups of friends look ready to go out.
But the show’s not quite over. Full of the buzzing energy that comes from another good show, members of the group take turns grabbing the mic for thank you’s. They shout to groups of friends in the balcony who drove from out of town. They point to their mothers. They beg the audience to encourage kids to read.
Some of the speeches go on longer than the pieces that came earlier, but it doesn’t matter. People stay, and they’re listening.