Poetry and Power: Feminism and the Spoken Word

By Allyson Hawkins

I attended my first spoken word event as a junior in college. The room was packed and full of energy, and silence washed over the crowd as words tumbled out of the poet’s mouth. Each sharp inhalation as she regained her breath and powered through the next verse conveyed a sense of urgency. As I listened, the whole room seemed to swell with energy, and I was on the edge of my seat. The poet’s words touched on so many issues I had engaged with before: feminism, relationships, loss, and love. Yet, as I sat there listening to these words being hurled at the audience, with so much resolve and earnestness behind them, I wondered how this particular art form stirred such energy and emotion within me in a matter of minutes.

giphyI still don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that whenever I hear a particularly great piece of poetry performed, it stays ringing in my head long after the poet takes a bow. Between the profound, hushed silence that overcomes a room after the poet’s final word and the first, tentative claps of applause lies a powerful moment- one which you can experience for yourself on THURSDAY, DEC. 1 in Fletcher’s very first spoken word poetry performance!

Hosted by the Gender Initiative, the event will informally kick-off the second annual Conference on Gender and International Affairs, taking place this Friday and Saturday, Dec. 2nd and 3rd. The evening, entitled “Power in Poetry,” embraces artistic expressions of gendered power structures. The event will feature readings from local Bostonian poet (and Tufts alum!) Kathleen Aguero, as well as Fletcher student performers.

So, what exactly does spoken word poetry have to do with gender? Several contemporary spoken word poets are reconceptualizing radical feminism and engaging in political conversations surrounding gender, identity, migration, war, and violence through this art form. However, utilizing poetry to examine issues of race, class, and sexuality is nothing new.

Spoken word and “slam” poetry have an intersectional history. In her paper “The Evolved Radical Feminism and Spoken Word,” Rachel Rozman locates the origin of the art form to a “white, working class Chicago barroom.” However, many of the poets that popularized the genre also helped democratize it, and “have defied the traditional standards of whose poetry counts as valid, privileging the voices of people of color, women, queer people, and the working class, among other marginalized groups.”

200Despite this history, the feminist reaction to spoken word poetry hasn’t always been positive. Particularly in the “slam” poetry arena, which turns recitations into a form of competition, feminist poets have critiqued the space as heavy with misogyny and dominated by men. Due to these critiques of poetry slams, many feminists moved into the spoken word space. Like any movement, feminist spoken word has its roots in different political spheres, and seeks to perform different actions. It’s been utilized as a rallying point against patriarchal culture, as a rhetorical tool to inspire political action, a means for creating collective solidarity across movements, and as a way to create spaces for poets to “behave spectacularly, to feel temporarily invincible, to feel safe in a world that has taught us to fear it.”

If you are the least bit intrigued, excited, or scared by what you’ve just read, I especially encourage you to stop by on Thursday night for what will certainly be a night of poetry AND power.

Allyson Hawkins is a second year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at the Fletcher School, focusing on the intersection of human security and gender in the Middle East. She can be reached at allyson.hawkins@tufts.edu. 


Poets linked to in the piece (seriously, folks- click the links!):

Dominique Christina– “The Period Poem”

Steve Connell– “We are the Lions”

Rupi Kaur– “Milk and Honey”

Emtithal Mahmoud– “The Colors We Ascribe” (you might remember Emtithal from last year’s Gender Conference!)

Rafeef Ziadah– “We Teach Life, Sir”

Works Cited:

Rozman, Rachel Beth. “The Evolved Radical Feminism of Spoken Word: Alix Olson, C.C. Carter, and Suheir Hammad.” University of Texas, Austin, Master of Arts Thesis. https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/22520/ROZMAN-MASTERSREPORT-2013.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

“What is a slam poet?” Power Poetry. http://www.powerpoetry.org/actions/what-slam-poem.


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