Frost Amphitheater

In late October, the short film Kronos Quartet: Testimony included spoken word performances by Bay Area spoken word poets. They were filmed outside the Harmony House mural, the home of Stanford's Institutue for Diversity in the Arts. The poets shared with us a bit about their work, their artistic influences, and what it was like to be part of the film shoot.


Cecelia "CeCe" Jordan

When did your interest in poetry begin?
As a child, I wrote little rhymes or songs in my head while I rode my bike to distract myself from the real world. Throughout my childhood, poetry weaved in and out of my life, especially when there were too many emotions to feel; all I could do was write. After high school, and as I struggled with the culture shock of a predominantly white institution, I quit writing all of a sudden. Writing poetry was far from my mind. However, in my senior year of college, during an annual youth conference, I met a young man: he was a fire spoken word artist, a high school student, and so brave. His ability to express himself and get free ignited a spirit inside that I’d worked hard to suppress. I’d become an expert at not feeling. Poetry gave me permission to feel again and to love in public. To share the stories of sorrow and joy, of past and future. 

Who are some of the important influences on your artistic practice?
I jokingly refer to Octavia E. Butler as Momma Octavia. A disciplined artist, she researched for years to develop her storylines and characters. Though she was rejected and continually dismissed for her complex narratives, Octavia persevered. Her life’s work broke barriers in the world of speculative fiction and traveled across Black history, time, space, nature, and spiritual realms. Her words are truly prophetic, as is her ability to create alternative worlds and universes with such intricate detail, which spanned the complexities and simplicities of what it means to be human. The Parable series, so before its time, predicted Make America Great Again in 1993. Unfortunately, we can only thank her for her ignored warnings in prayer. At the onset of the pandemic, long after she transitioned from our earthly world, her intention to make The New York Times Best Seller list was realized, and her greatness is finally recognized. As a queer Black woman, I am reminded that our work as artists is essential, to write is to breathe. There will be those who deny our access to clear air, and still we envision a day where breathing is no longer an act of resistance. We pour all of ourselves into our work in a world that dismisses our pain, discourages our rebellion, and diminishes our revolutionary dreams.  

How would you define the role of the poet?
My personal role as a poet is to write my story, understand our history, analyze systems, pay homage to ancestors, explore nature imagine Black futures, paint dreams, etc. It is always my goal to open hearts, unlock minds, and free spirits to alternative realities so we may gain new understandings and evolve beyond oppression. And, because we are always evolving beyond the legacies of colonization, the role shifts at times; there are moments when it is my role to meditate, heal, and learn from other poets as I grow.  

What does your creative process look like? How does the process differ for spoken word and page poetry?
Most of the time, the words are beyond me. I write best when I am still enough to hear the ancestors’ whispers, calm enough to interpret the dreams, and well enough to allow spirit to move through my body as a vessel. To some extent, we are just vessels of energy. My role is to make my vessel as clear and open as possible to allow the “poetry” to flow through the body and find its way to the page. I put quotations around poetry because we are all poets with the ability to shape and write our futures.

What surprised you most about performing for film rather than a live audience?
The crew and staff at the shoot were all so chill, and I never felt bad for repeating the poem over and over and over again. It is the opposite experience of a poetry slam where you go through the poem one time, receive a score, and quickly move onto the next. It felt like they were dissecting every moment to connect the poetry of cinematography with my words. I enjoyed collaborating with other artists who cared so much about their craft. 

What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
Never stop writing, never stop reading, never stop learning and evolving. My favorite poets are all people who cross boundaries and bend genres with their work. And, they are humble, honest, kind, and always learning to do better and be better people. I think poetry and art in general is about being open to the full experience of being alive. To do that work, we must decolonize all of the muscle memories that taught us not to feel. 

 

Read more about Cecelia "CeCe" Jordan's work on her website and on Instagram.


Zouhair Mussa

When did your interest in poetry begin?
I began writing poetry when I was 7 or 8. I always had a passion for writing, but it was around this age when I was introduced to the art form as a whole. I was 8 at my first performance and I’ve been tied to it ever since. I love getting on the mic.

Who are some of the important influences on your artistic practice?
My community (West Oakland/24th and Chestnut). Without growing up where I grew up I wouldn’t have certain stories to tell. I’m thankful for the love my community holds through its pain. I’m thankful for the rich music history of West Oakland. Black history is full of griots, and when you tell the stories of the unheard you’re indirectly an activist. I pay attention to the world around me. That’s my influence. My mom is also a writer and I’m convinced she passed on some writer gene to me.

How would you define the role of the poet?
The role of the poet is to be the voice of the movement. Being able to weave words in a way that’s easy on the ears and impactful on the heart is a gift.

What does your creative process look like? How does the process differ for spoken word and page poetry?
The process doesn’t differ for the writing. The preparation for a spoken word piece is the only differenceknowing when to say certain things and how to say it, coordinating certain body movements with a piece and drilling it.

What surprised you most about performing for film rather than a live audience?
It’s different 'cause you don’t feel the same anxiety as when you’re in front of a crowd. I was able to do many takes so it felt good to get in the groove.

What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
Never stop, and if you do, always go back. Once it’s in you it never leaves. Trust that. You have a gift. Don’t let anybody take it from you.

 

Read more about Zouhair Mussa's work on Soundcloud and Bandcamp.


Anouk Yeh

When did your interest in poetry begin?
I started listening to spoken word in middle school but only started writing and performing the summer before my freshman year of high school.  I was driven to start writing mainly by my frustration with our current administration and the need for my voice to be heard. Historically, young people have always been discouraged from being politically vocal, so spoken word was especially exciting for me because it offered a way to address politics and social issues without being immediately tuned out.

Who are some of the important influences on your artistic practice?
I’ve always admired Franny Choi and Danez Smith for their ability to be fearlessly political in their work and for the way they seamlessly navigate between page poetry and spoken word. I’m also constantly influenced and inspired by the poetry of other young Bay Area poets who are using their work to radically inspire and urge on the revolution.

How would you define the role of the poet?
I’m a firm believer in Toni Cade Bambara’s quote: “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” In politically and socially polarizing times, I believe poets hold the power — and a have a duty—to heal and move others. For me, that means that I’m always looking for inventive ways to tackle social issues in my poetry. My ultimate goal is for my work to help start conversations about current issues that people would be originally reluctant to tackle.

What does your creative process look like? How does the process differ for spoken word and page poetry?
To be honest, I don’t have a rigid writing process. However, I’m almost always writing spoken word in direct response to current event happenings. For instance, the poem I performed in “Testimony” was written just days after (and in direct response to) Andrew Yang’s April 1st Washington Post editorial. Most other poems I’ve written also come from a similar headspace of directly responding to something freshly socially or politically controversial.

What surprised you most about performing for film rather than a live audience?
One of the coolest things about performing spoken word live is that, while onstage, the poet has an open dialogue with the audience. If I, as the poet, speak a line that the audience resonates with or likes, they will usually snap, clap, or make some sort of noise in affirmation. One thing I had to adjust to [during the film shoot] was not having that real time audience response and energy to feed off of.

What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
For young poets, always write about what you care about. With the rise of youth writing competition culture, it has become really easy to get caught up in writing for other people. However, one thing to remember is that what makes poetry so exciting is its quality of being more than the sum of its parts. That in a great poem, there’s always that extra sparkle or kick that pushes the poem over the edge from just simply being words on a page. Always remember that the extra kick can only ever come from having your authentic voice present in the poem.

 

Read more about Anouk Yeh on her website, Instagram, and Twitter


Darnell "DeeSoul" Carson

When did your interest in poetry begin?
My interest for poetry started in middle school. I was given poetry as an assignment and really fell in love with it. 9th grade is when I got into spoken word after getting to perform my poetry at several of my school’s assemblies. My church “uncle” is also a spoken word poet and is a friend of the well-known Rudy Francisco, both powerful motivators for me.

Who are some of the important influences on your artistic practice?
I think a lot about music artists with really clever images in their writing, especially female rappers like noname and Tierra Whack. I’m also in large part inspired by the work of Danez Smith, Rudy Francisco, Ebony Stewart, Porsha Olayiwola, and Crystal Valentine.

How would you define the role of the poet?
I believe poetry serves four main functions. First, poetry is a way for us to tell and pass down stories. Second, poetry gives us the opportunity to curate and guide people through experiences they may not have encountered before. Third, poetry allows us to remember who and what has come before us and lets us use that collective memory to push us forward. Finally, poetry lets us imagine what the future could be and all the potential we have to get there.

What does your creative process look like? How does the process differ for spoken word and page poetry?
My process for writing has definitely changed. Usually, I’ll start with a concept, something I feel the deep need to talk about. After that, I try to think of images that would capture the subject the best. As a spoken word poet, I believe in strong, clear metaphors, and I try to focus on saying what’s important versus saying a lot. During the editing process, I try to go back and specify things that seem general or vague.

What surprised you most about performing for film rather than a live audience?
The quiet! A live audience is obviously much more responsive, but in film, everyone around you has to be quiet so as not to mess up the sound. I appreciate the production team—they gave me all the energy I needed after each take!

What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
Keep reading and keep writing. Writing will get you into the mindset that this is something that you are intentionally setting out to do. Reading will tell what you like and don’t like and will help you to find your own voice.

 

Read more about Darnell "DeeSoul" Carson on his website, on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.


Jarvis Subia

When did your interest in poetry begin?
I started writing poetry in middle school as a way to impress a girl (eeeeek). I would write throughout high school but I was a closeted jock and sharing my poetry wasn’t the cool thing to do. When I got to college I started finding open mics that I would go to read at consistently. This eventually led me to competitive slam poetry events where I would begin to hone my passion for words and performance.

Who are some of the important influences on your artistic practice?
Many contemporary spoken word poets, particularly those who have been through the poetry slam community, whose poems fill venues, YouTube channels, and now Zoom shows. Some of my first engagements with poetry were watching poets on Def Poetry Jam perform with such power. I am really partial to the work of local Bay Area poets Mic Ting, Reggie Edmonds, Imani Cezanne, and Darius Simpson.

How would you define the role of the poet?
Poetry is a lens we use to see the world. You see a newborn take its first step and witness something happening. The poet looks for a way to articulate the beauty, or joy, or sorrow, or well of complex emotions tied to the world around us. The poet, like the writer, knows there is more to a subject or a thought than what’s in front of us. The poet in my opinion is not necessarily a role or a position but rather a perspective.

What does your creative process look like? How does the process differ for spoken word and page poetry?
I like to consider myself a poet first and foremost—sometimes my poetry shows up as a performance such as spoken word and sometimes my poetry shows up on the page for publication. Though all of my poetry is intended to both exist on the page and to be read aloud through the drafting process, and I take that into great consideration when crafting a new piece. I often say I want my poetry to be read from the stage and heard from the page.

What surprised you most about performing for the film rather than a live audience?
There usually isn’t an entire film crew with me when I am performing live so that was new. Also, the amount of thought put into lighting and angles. It’s nice to watch another creative process in action.

What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
Keep writing. Find a community to share your work with and build with. Keep writing. Learn how to find workshops, retreats, and grants to build yourself up. Read your favorite poets. Read someone else’s favorite poets. Keep writing.

 

Read more about Jarvis Subia on his website, on Instagram, and Twitter.