Ujima poets consider personal, political in spoken word

Khadeejah Abdul-Basser performs a poem in the Rose Parlor. Sherry Liao/The Miscellany News

The Miscellany News version of the NPR Tiny Desk series does not take place behind a desk. It has found a home in makeshift spaces on campus; past locations have included TA 52, where student bands Milk and Pander have played, and, most recently, the Rose Parlor. Adorned with velvet curtains and the glow of neon lights, the latter spot welcomed poets from Ujima—an art organization for students of color—who recited spoken word poems on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 24.

The Rose Parlor was scattered with cameras, microphones and expectant students. While the phrase “Vassar arts scene” has become ubiquitous as of late, the latest installation of the Tiny Desk facilitates an artistic revival on campus, an atmosphere of collaboration between student groups. Four Ujima members read out their work, and a handful of students were working the cameras, sound and lighting. The scene flooded with artistic collaboration.

Ujima President Lena Stevens ’21 moderated the event and shared two poems of her own. In “Notes of a Black Modern,” words tumbled out of her mouth like the notes of a song, seeming both improvised and practiced: “i walk tall drink slow/out of short glasses and go home alone/i jazz june to sad tunes/kiss the rhythm and bleed the blues.”. Staunch, steadfast and resolute, the narrator radiated confidence. As Stevens read, royal blue lights rained down on her, and even the lift of her chin, was highly calculated. Her poem was not only verbal art, but also performative. “When I’m delivering spoken word, I have the opportunity to occupy a persona other than myself,” Stevens said.

Poet Sara Inoa ’20 climbed into a character too, their voice transporting readthrough a sharp but messy reflection on birth. When introducing their first poem, “Inhale me Inside you,” they clarified, “it’s about placentas.” The poem occupied them physically, their voice curling around their words, calling to mind the noises of birth: moaning, outcries. “My eyes still sparkled as she wiggled on my naked chest,” Inoa read. Their words were imbued with a deep appreciation for bodies, and let those bare images be bloody and beautiful. Their theatrical voice captivated listeners, and Inoa said they use the same enthusiasm when reading bedtime stories to their daughter.

“I associate [writing] with the birth of my child, with an explosion of wanting to be more honest, to put my honest body and self forward,” the performer mused. “When I got pregnant that was my whole identity—it was the first interesting thing that had happened to me. I’m 19. I’m deciding to be a mom; that’s a whole story on its own. For a couple of years, that was who I was: 19-year-old mom, read it and weep, or be excited about it.”

When Khadeejah Abdul-Basser ’22 approached the microphone, she chose orange to flood the stage. It was her first time performing poetry. She asked in the first line, “What does happiness mean to you?”

Abdul-Basser spoke of growing, of coming into oneself, evoking color and life: “Is it faith in the future, making peace with the past,/Acknowledging that you are on the cusp/Of reaching your potential, your goals, at long last?”

Hannah Hildebolt ’21 spoke of love. As she took the mic, she admitted she would share “two very gay love poems,” and inside her words lingered the longing for and excitement of crushes. “Some people get butterflies. I get universes,” she read in “Close Your Eyes,” which traced a connection between love and the beginning of the universe—“What a mess of the dark and the divine!”

The final poem read was “Black Ink,” by Stevens, the host herself. The piece tackled the painful truth of police brutality. “Boohoo blue you, your tears seep through sheets of white/Leaving your black ink to bleed all through the night,” she read.

Stevens did not see a dichotomy between her two poems. Oppressive forces like police brutality go hand-in-hand with recognizing the everyday joys of being a person of color, she explained.

She also discussed the fruits of her poetry: “Being able to write a poem like ‘Notes of the Black Modern’ and internally reflect on how I’m feeling about myself gives me a more personal look, but having a poem like ‘Black Ink’ allows me to situate myself in a greater community, gaining a better picture of who I am and who I want to be.”

Each poet recognized the duality between Stevens’ musical and joyful opener, “Notes of a Black Modern,” and the bleak “Black Ink.” Inoa said that their longform writing, which faces “[their] guts and gross things,” is heavy, so they turn to poetry and songwriting to explore the lighter side of living.

In this piece she proclaimed, “and i do it all choreographed to the sweet melodies of ma rainey.” Stevens references Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, a blues artist who was arrested in 1925 for her pride and outspokenness. This reference underscores the joy expressed through the event; each poet was unapologetic in their tales of motherhood, personhood and romantic tribulations.

“As a songwriter and poet, that’s a realm where I can write a song about having a cup of tea with a friend or these moments that do bring happiness,” Inoa affirmed.

For Abdul-Basser, writing was also a way to face components of her identity, particularly as the only Black girl in her high school class. “I always felt growing up that I lacked a sense of community outside of my family, and once I started to get more comfortable with sharing my poetry, I felt like Vassar and Ujima would be the perfect place for me to be vulnerable with people in a way that I hadn’t gotten to in the past,” she revealed.

After the poets finished, there was a shuffle to put away lights, dismount cameras and throw out empty cups of tea. The poets sat on a couch alongside one another, humming with the adrenaline of sharing something special, personal and vulnerable.

“The second that I actually started reading I was nervous, but once I stepped into the poem I was like, okay, I know what’s up,” Hildebolt said. “I know how this piece moves, I know what it sounds like, I know where I’m going.”

Stevens seconded this sentiment.

“I was definitely a little nervous too, but now I’m just warm,” Inoa said, smiling. Stevens and Hildebolt, nodded their heads in a rhythm of understanding. They had laid out their words in front of the camera, and now they wait for the rest of the world to listen.

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