Strivers Row poets speak to minority student experiences

The Strivers Row poets will perform spoken word poetry at Vassar with a focus on race and social consciousness. Their performance will take place at 8:00 p.m. on Nov 16 in Rockefeller Hall. Photo By: The University of Nebraska, Lincoln
The Strivers Row poets will perform spoken word poetry at Vassar with a focus on race and social consciousness. Their performance will take place at 8:00 p.m. on Nov 16 in Rockefeller Hall. Photo By: The University of Nebraska, Lincoln
The Strivers Row poets will perform spoken word poetry at Vassar with a focus on race and
social consciousness. Their performance will take place at 8:00 p.m. on Nov 16 in Rockefeller Hall. Photo By: The University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Some poetry has teeth, and is meant to rouse an audience with raw emotion. The poetry of Strivers Row Spoken Word troupe certainly strives for this effect on its audiences. Strivers Row is a talent relations and artistic management agency that promotes many spoken word, as well as other, artists.

According to Secretary of the Council of Black Seniors (CBS) Niya Nicholson ’14, the group is also very socially conscious. “I regard the Strivers Row’s poetry as also a social movement with a gestalt that has a felt change of social consciousness on the part of their listeners; there is so much power in words, in spoken word poetry, and CBS optimistically hopes that the students at Vassar College, especially the students of color, will be motivated and rejuvenated by this special event!” Nicholson said in an emailed statement.

Two poets of the troupe, Joshua Bennett and Carvens Lissaint, will perform at the poetry slam with the Wordsmiths Saturday, Nov. 16 at 8:00 p.m. in Rockefeller Hall. The event centers on the triumphs and tribulations of students of color through spoken word.

Spoken word, as an artistic medium, places its roots in the Beat poetry tradition of the  1960’s, performance art, the blues and the Harlem Renaissance. This style of poetry, as it is now known, with its tendency towards informal syntax, emotional resonance and synergy with the audience, emerged some time in the 1990’s.

“I believe that the spoken word poetry of the Strivers Row is so germane to the issues [we], as students of color, perpetually engage with not only at Vassar College but also in our respective communities,” explained Nicholson. “These issues, which the poets of the Strivers Row so passionately and eloquently deliver in their work, revolve around but are not limited to the reflecting on and the reckoning with race and gender identity; the effects of politics, privilege and gentrification; and also the undeniable strength that families and communities of color have in the love and growth we share with one another—whether it’s through frustration or celebration.”

Nicholson continued, The traditional stagnant reading of a poem was no match for the level of audience engagement possible when poetry was presented as a physical/full sensory experience.”

Lissaint reflected on the nature of his craft: “Spoken Word has been created to understand how to be yourself, how to be scholarly…it was created to be a lover of language, to protect it and to start shaking things up” (YouTube, “The Interview-The Strivers Row on Influences”). It is meant to be a catalyst for change, be it personal, political or social.

The members of Strivers Row have embraced the fertility of their artistic medium. They understand the legacy of Spoken Word and its significance in African-American history. In fact, they not only understand the legacy, but they also hope to be a part of Spoken Word’s future.

The spoken word poets of Strivers Row hope that it can change the course of education and make students, especially students of color, excited about school. These poets want to make students eager to read out loud, encouraging them to really feel the intonations and textures of a novel or a history book.

Bennett discussed his personal mission as an artist. He explained, “My larger creative project as an artist and scholar centers around a desire to cultivate new vocabularies for living, thinking, writing, performing blackness, destabilize hegemonic conceptions of beauty and strength and, as much as is possible within the constraints of linear time, have mad fun writing poems and teaching workshops and telling jokes with my friends.”

He continued, “I am committed to the love and care of friends. I am committed to expansive notions of kin that transcend species. Put just a little bit differently, I am committed to the flourishing of life, to the joy of the plant and animal world, and the collective empowerment of marginalized persons everywhere. Word is bond.” (YouTube, “The Interview-The Strivers Row on Influences”)

In his poetry, Bennett aims to give people reasons to choose vitality over violence, two words that share the same etymological stem.

Below is an excerpt from Carvens Lissaint’s and Miles Hodges’ poem, “Strive”:

There will be days when heaven doesn’t seem so close. When there seems to be no hope. Your back is hugging the ropes, and that stomach could use some bread. When the air in your lungs feels like lead, and all the fight in your breath has disappeared and left, Strive. During the tough weeks, the ones where everyday feels like Monday morning, The train ran local and you keep spilling your coffee at the desk of a job that looks nothing like the misspelled poster, pinned to that dreamy first grade call when they asked you, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

Anything but a coward. During the long walks to work, your wallet is filled with the lint of last month’s bills. Knees weak from dusting your life’s problem under the rug of success. There will be times when you’re at your lowest point. You are the ash of a Phoenix with clipped wings that will never rise. You are a broken levy, unable to control the drowning of your household, Strive.

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