Writing Live: Nuyorican Poet's Cafe and The Moth

Monday, May 16, 2011

Last week, I had the fabulous opportunity to attend not one, but two literary events in NYC: The Nuyorican Poet's Cafe Friday night slam and The Moth's StorySlam at the Brooklyn Museum. After getting a healthy dose of Snoop Dogg, I took a 180 degree turn in my live entertainment consumption. And, to put it mildly, it was amazing.

As writers everywhere know, most of the time our work will not be read aloud. We will not be asked to come on television or the radio and act out our pieces - nor would most of us want to. The boundary between spoken and written word is not often crossed: we are writers or speakers, but there is an inherent challenge in being both. In these two spaces, however, so many people proved that they could bridge the divide with fantastic results. And - equally amazing - they attracted major crowds! Although it is often said that literature is dying and the printed word is on its way out, you wouldn't know it from the audience at both slams. And that's essentially what I wanted to get before I left for summer - an energizing reminder that writers were and still are appreciated for their work, which is not just for themselves, but for all those listeners and readers out there that appreciate them too. Here is a brief recap of both events and their impact on me.

The Nuyorican is a long-standing poetry cafe in NYC that is filled to the brim each time they host an event. Though it was my first time attending a poetry slam there, I had been hearing about it and planning to go for months. When finally I found myself in the last week before flying home to Seattle, I knew that this was it: I coerced a friend of mine to join me, and we both traveled downtown to wait in line and snag a table at this critically-acclaimed location. The lowered lights and the thick crowds made the place feel a bit claustrophobic, but it was quite exciting for me to see wave after wave of people coming to attend. When announcer Mo Brown came out on stage, she amped up the energy even more by asking everyone first to announce where they were from with hoots and hollers, then get up and dance. This place is most assuredly a place for participators. The night first started with two featured artists who performed drastically different works - the first was a teacher who wrote pieces inspired by the kids he taught while the second claimed he was an alien and did some very non-traditional verse. Following that was the competition portion, where several slam poets presented completely original work. I was giddy with excitement to be back in the element - I have always had a fascination with slam poetry, and these people really delivered. To the awesome applause of the audience, poets presented skillful wordplay on subjects ranging from parental obesity to Michael Jackson's death. By 1am, when the show was over, I was nearly in tears from all the heavy subject matter and buzzing with creative energy.

What I appreciated the most about the Nuyorican was the representation of very different lifestyles and experiences. While people may share an outward appearance, their writing was very distinct and passionate. They were devoted to the subject matter that they spoke about, much like underground and old school rap. There were performers of color and from different educational backgrounds, but the mic was where they all became equal and showed their elevated talent for the written/spoken word.

The Moth, on the other hand, had a very different feel to its StorySlam. The Moth is an organization that promotes storytelling through its StorySlams (much like poetry slams, but for prose) and its podcast, which was the way I first was introduced to it. In their StorySlam at the Brooklyn Museum, they had a stage that was crowded with people - these were not just the regular museum-goers, but devoted Moth fans. One woman we met was visiting from New Zealand and she had listened to the podcast, so she was excited to finally see the readings live. The theme of that night was Mother Nature. At first, because of the casual atmosphere, I wondered how good the quality of the stories would be - yet, when the performers came up on stage, they started off strong and kept on rolling. I ended up being just as inspired that night as the night before and geared up to pen my own Moth story.

Something that was starkly different about The Moth's slam was that the performers drawn were all white and, in this case, all male. I was surprised because the podcasts are more diverse - perhaps by virtue of the draw or because the people who self-select for events at The Moth are different from those who choose to perform at the Nuyorican, the atmosphere was less political and less interested in broad topics. While both venues drew amazing crowds, you could see a distinct difference in their audience. Their stories were fascinating and took on microcosms of life, such as an evil preying mantis or a burned down log cabin, in order to signify some character change for the person on stage. These mini-memoirs were mostly funny and did not deal as much with the somber subject matter that the Nuyorican slam had hit me with the night before.

Ultimately, I enjoyed both slams, but for separate reasons. What I appreciated about both these slams - which were conveniently right after one another on a Friday and Saturday night - was that they both featured amateur artists. I enjoyed that there was a feeling that a writer could do anything and be anything. Yet, while the Nuyorican performances were focused on the gritty aspects of life, The Moth's readers treated themselves as characters in their own life. I cannot choose which one I preferred more.

The moral of my slam experiences is that to write is a struggle, but there are places in which you will be appreciated. I always feel more alive when I see people succeeding at what I myself do. It gives me new hope that maybe, just maybe, there will be someone out there who will clap for me at the end of the day. But for now, I will clap for myself so that I can make it, finally, to the stage.