(Our Flashback series celebrates a decade of Tacoma arts and culture, in honor of the 10th anniversary of Art at Work Month, this November.)
Poetry, like all art, is subversive – it can deliver the blinding radiance of a mushroom cloud or the jellifying effect of a kiss, all in the space of a few well-chosen words. But when it comes to spoken-word poetry – free verse broadcast in human-powered Sensurround – the delivery counts every bit as much as the words. Like a piano score written on paper, a poem finds completion when it’s read aloud.
For several talented Tacoma poets, a breakthrough opportunity to share their work with the public came in 2008. That was the year spoken-word performance was added to the Art at Work Month Art Slam at the Rialto Theater. Visual artists and filmmakers had shown their work on the big screen the previous two years – but there were no poets in the house. With the addition of live poetry onstage, in 2008, the dynamic artfest hit its stride.
“The spoken word really added depth to the event – brought it to life,” says Naomi Strom-Avila, the Art at Work development team member who brainstormed adding poetry-out-loud. Verbal artists “use their voice and tempo like a musical instrument,” in this case creating a rhythmic dance with images projected onscreen, explains Luke Smiraldo, a spoken-word poet with the Urban Orchestra, and creator of a new online drama about Tacoma called Slamtown (launching in late September). By performing their work aloud, he says, poets make a visceral connection with the audience.
The first poetry-inclusive Art Slam included Smiraldo, Antonio Edwards, David Fewster, Zeek Green and Elijah Muied. Where rhetoric ends, poetry begins: “In 2009, Zeek Green did a killer performance of his piece, Now, at the Art Slam,” recalls Strom-Avila. “The piece is about the need for universal health care and the performance happened around the time when that was a very hot button topic. His piece got a standing ovation from the audience.”
Smiraldo says that poets “tell stories that need to be heard about subjects that are meaningful, important or disturbing.” In the process, they move listeners “from apathy to investment,” touching a full range of emotions. This year, Art at Work will showcase spoken-word poets in a new format for its 10th anniversary – details coming soon.