Athens — Poet Mark Flanigan stands at the front of Avid Bookshop. “This is the poem that never spoke, because it couldn’t speak well,” he says quietly to the audience. Then, shaking a fist in the air, he shouts, “Piece [sic] of mind doesn’t have a damn thing to do with peace!”
It’s part of an ongoing series of spoken-word events at Avid, called “Speaking Pages.” Meanwhile, at the Globe, one of Athens’ storied bars, a similar group gathers on the first Wednesday of every month in the upstairs lounge for a series dubbed “Word of Mouth.”
This college town, a nurturer of indie rock bands and the birthplace of some music legends, has a secret with a different sort of rhythm. Writers and performers, uninhibited and unencumbered by fear, judgment or self-pride, are gravitating to warm nooks such as Avid and the Globe, where enthusiastic audiences gather for evenings of the spoken word.
“Word of Mouth” is the brainchild of Aralee Strange, a passionate woman with a lightning bolt tattooed on her right cheek and poetry tattooed on her midsection. Strange, 70, who has a reputation as a take-no-prisoners playwright and poet, began hosting “Word of Mouth” in 2008 as an alternative to the stiff formality of university-sponsored events. [Editor’s note: Aralee Strange died in her sleep on June 16.]
Strange, who founded three performance spaces in Cincinnati, aims for a safe and welcoming environment, equal parts energy and acceptance. Illuminated by a soft spotlight, performers take the stage in the Globe’s signature turquoise room, standing before a single microphone on a low stage.
Newly minted University of Georgia graduate Kavi Vu, winner of Kollaboration ATL for spoken word, is a regular performer. Characterized by a rapper’s rhythm, her spoken-word style stands out as “slam poetry” in the context of Athens’ soulful storytellers. She yells in the midst of her own quiet speech, unafraid to scowl and curse.
“Sometimes I just feel the need to add some jokes in, because my pieces are so hard-hitting and emotional that I feel like I’m the buzz kill of the place,” Vu says.
Nevertheless, she finds the Athenian spoken-word subculture to be kind and open-minded. “It’s kind of selfish, but I don’t want spoken word to be huge in Athens,” she confides. “It has become my hideaway. My place to go and spill my emotions to new friends and strangers, and that isolation from the rest of the drunken town feels . . . kind of amazing.”
Sharing one’s thoughts can be difficult, says Seyi Amosu, a UGA psychology student, “especially if you wrote it during a really sensitive time in your life.” Yet her fears –“Am I going to forget the words?,” “What are people going to think?” and “Are they going to like it?” — make the experience all the more visceral and meaningful.
Gregory Moyer, an acoustic rock and hip-hop artist and a former percussion student at UGA’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music, finds the spoken-word experience similarly exhilarating.
“There’s something to be said about a room full of people, silent, yet hanging on every word the artist projects, filling the room with meaningful energy,” he says.
Moyer strives to “layer a message into a thoughtful piece of art,” he says. “Something that the audience can participate in, yet still provokes thought.”
Primarily, though, the experience is internal and personal.
“It’s like a drug. I try to break down my emotional barriers and string together a set of words that embody who I am. The pulse, the rhythm, the feel of a spoken-word piece — for the artist, it’s giving away a little piece of yourself with the hopes that someone listening will identify with it.”