Spoken word poetry gaining prominence in art scene

Spoken word poetry gaining prominence in art scene

When it comes to the citys artistic landscape, Alexandria has always painted, sculpted, acted and harmonized. Now it can rhyme, too.

Spoken word, the poetry primed for performance more than the page, is creeping onto the scene thanks to Shelly Bell, president of Seven City Art Society. A computer science teacher at T.C. Williams by day, Bell, an award-winning spoken-word poet, has helped connect a community in Alexandria that otherwise would have to go to D.C. to get their fix. 

Were definitely trying to spark some fire over here because there are lots of people here who would love to be able to do something like this, Bell said. 

Spoken word is about writing and performing an introspective art form where performers use line breaks and breath control to get their rhythmic message across to the crowd. Its been popularized on TV shows like HBOs Def Poetry Jam, but Alexandrias participation has lacked, despite a palpable interest from residents young and old, Bell said.

While the citys stake in the visual arts and music is especially well grounded, its literary scene could use some work, Bell said, which is where she comes in. 

Bell and 10-year spoken word artist Joseph LMS Green hosted Write, Speak, Live! Wednesday night, a monthly event for spoken word poets of all ages and skill, at Medieval Madnesss Renaissance Hall in Old Town. Its not about competition, but creating a comfortable environment for the emerging rhyming community, Green said.

Events like this are important because everyone needs that outlet, whether its the mom who writes poems, or the high school kid who gets his fix from cable TV or movies, which is sometimes the only place to get it, so its important in that respect, Green said. [Participants] run the gamut from people who write in personal notebooks and wouldnt otherwise share it, to people who are practicing before they go on tour.

And no topic is off limits.

We talk about anything anything and everything, from politics to personal life to beautiful things whatever is on your mind, Green said. We try to stay away from hateful things, but if something angers you, its a good cathartic environment for everyone.

Green is practicing for a tour. He leads two after-school writing programs at Hayfield High School and manages a retail store by day, but is a professional spoken word poet like Bell. Both tour regionally and up and down the East Coast but for now they intend on filling a creative void in the city. 

And it seems to be working, albeit modestly. The first three installments of Write, Speak, Live! attracted between 20 and 30 people, Bell said, and interest seems to be snowballing.

That spoken word is catching on is poetry to Amy Youngs ears. As the citys poet laureate, Young embarked on a campaign to promote the art form prominently when she filled the post last summer. 

Im absolutely thrilled, Young said. I feel like that was one of the areas that really needed building up. When I met Shelly, we were on parallel paths and she just needed the ignition.

Ironically, for an art form about expression and communication, getting the word out to generate a community of spoken word poets on this side of the Potomac has not come easy. The scene is still fractured, Bell said. Alexandria City Public Schools, which employs Bell, actually had a D.C. artist host a spoken word event for students, apparently unaware of Bells experience and passion. 

Im thinking, How do I get the word out? Where do I go? How do you bridge all of these things together so everyone gets this cohesive environment going on? Bell said.

Word seems to be getting out with help from Young and Green. And they wont stop with monthly meet-ups. A citywide poetry festival is in the works, tentatively scheduled for April, with Young and Bell as driving forces.  Spoken word poetry will definitely be on the agenda, Young said.

Theres a community here if you everyone could just connect, Young said. I think we have sort of a nascent art forming in Alexandria.