By Arielle Tuzon
It's afternoon at the Cross Cultural Center Ring Room, where a group of soulful, creative students are meeting. They are known by their pseudonym, Uncultivated Rabbits, a spoken word poetry club at UCI.
On Monday of the third week of classes at UCI, the Uncultivated Rabbits hosted the first of their poetry writing workshops, or what they like to call, “Creative Sessions.” The club opens these workshops to everyone, not just registered members. The purpose being not just to encourage membership, but mainly to introduce others to their passion and love for the art of spoken word.
At this meeting, as with many other clubs on campus, I saw a lot of energetic people meeting, greeting, hugging, and laughing. At about ten past four the workshop finally started. The board members introduced themselves, welcomed us, briefly explained who they are and what they do, and went right into explaining the icebreaker: beat-boxing.
They split us into two groups, each group alternating between making up a line, or providing the back-beat of beat-boxing. The club historian Miguel Mendoza demonstrated. One of the other board members in the opposite group created a beat, while his group members caught on, nodding their heads and tapping their feet to the rhythm.
Boots... cats…boots…cats…boots-cats..boots-cats..boots-cats boots-cats…
“Yo, yo, yo, YO. Unh, I know this girl, her name is--” Miguel froze and couldn’t think of anything. “Shit.”
The beatboxing stopped and the whole room burst into laughter. The game continued, and I even joined in, providing a silly rhyme about the movie “Inception” after someone mentioned the words “Immaculate Conception.”
After a couple rounds, the icebreaker ended, as club secretary Robert Zavala introduced the workshop. He told us this workshop was just to get us started writing, brainstorming and get some creative juices flowing. Typically, Uncultivated Rabbits hold themed “Creative Sessions,” every week, hosted by any member who proposes something interesting to write about. Topics for these workshops can range from like “Punctuation,” to “Emotions.” For this session, Robert wrote one word, ‘dark,’ and then had other people branch off and brainstorm related words to write about. They gave us about fifteen minutes to come up with our words, and write poems in silence.
I picked the word “graveyard” and tried to sound profound, comparing life mistakes and regrets to decaying bodies buried under tombs. A couple minutes into writing, one girl started getting frustrated and made a noticeably distressed facial expression.
“Ugh, I can’t do this. It’s like, I’m writing proofs.”
Robert playfully imitated her distressed face, “Oh my god. But we are SO not writing proofs.”
Miguel pushed Robert aside and talked to the girl. “Try to string words together without stopping. Vomit. Just vomit words out onto your page. And keep throwing them up.”
The girl laughed and continued writing. “Okay…”
After the fifteen minutes were up, people volunteered to share their poems. My poem seemed to possess extreme morbidity, because of which I decided not to share. But after hearing others tell theirs, I actually felt mine wasn’t quite deep enough.
Words such as dragon, chainsaw, death, death of a relationship and devil were mixed about. One poem, “Attack,” set a mood of hurt and sorrow, capturing the feelings of an adolescent girl who was a rape victim. Supportive snaps and “Mmhms” of agreement and admiration were given with each poem. Each person shared parts of themselves, bearing their souls in these poems for everyone to hear. Some seemed to hit all of us deeply, and others showcased real personality and humor. One guy stood up and shared his poem, about food. Which to him, had a dark, yet a spiritual side. “Cheese..my soul’s nirvana.”
After the meeting, I sat down with three board members, Miguel, Nghiem, and Isabel, and asked them about their experiences in Uncultivated Rabbits. They expressed their love of poetry, and personal experiences that are reflected in their writing. We sat outside Starbucks as I asked them questions.
I learned that Uncultivated Rabbits started in 2005, with a small amount of members and hardly any options for venues to play at for activities or meetings. As the club grew, they started to get more requests to play at other on campus club events and outside venues. They eventually thought up more ways to get members, or ‘Rabbits’ involved. With the start of the Creative Sessions, UR was able to gain more members, but also just more support in general. They workshops created a place for non-members to try their hands at poetry writing, possibly join the club if they wish, or for some, just allowed them to listen and appreciate students cultivating an art form.
“We just do it for the love of the art.” Says Nghiem, Club Vice President. “I mean, it’d be great if people attending our workshops could join, but our main purpose is just to help Spoken Word as an art form grow. It doesn’t matter how big our membership is, as long as we know we helped spread the ‘word’ if you will.”
Uncultivated Rabbits at the moment is made up of about 20 members. They range in majors from Biological Sciences to Studio Art. Some just write for the joy of writing, others need an outlet for their emotions, while even more others find it is their niche.
So as a UR board member, what exactly do you do? In addition to administrative duties, members are in charge of taking care of membership, deciding which Creative Sessions to schedule each week, organizing, and planning performances.
Nowadays, Uncultivated Rabbits host their Creative Sessions once a week, open to members and nonmembers. They hold Open Mic Nights once a month; again, open for both members and nonmembers to join. Only paid members get a chance to perform at events. They usually having the option to request how many and which events to perform at. Due to the success of the past couple years; an increase in membership, as well as winning the “Most Outstanding Performance Club” award from UCI, the Uncultivated Rabbits have created for themselves a great following, and have come a long way from the small rabbit population they were in 2005.
So then, what exactly is Spoken Word?
“From what I remember,” says Miguel, “it all seemed to start off with this guy. He was at a bar, he was really really angry, and so decided to get up on a table and say, ‘Hey! I shall spit out some poetry at you! And that’s kind of the birth of it so to speak. Jack Kerouac is actually one of the older pioneers of poetry. It also seemed to originate from Beatnik poetry. Beatnik is basically like you’re typical coffeehouse poetry, with the bongo drums and the berets and the coffee.”
Indeed, Spoken Word’s origins can be found through Beatnik poetry, or rather, the broader brand of “performance poetry.” Performance poetry includes any poetry in which one simply performs their poems to an audience. Though many past poets have been known to perform their poems, notable performance poetry dates back to the Beat Generation, when post World War II poetry writing arose in the 1950s, inspired by the time period’s growing rebellious and experimental culture. The original Beat poets include the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg.
From the Beats arose more performance poetry in the 1970s, where many poets performed protest-like poems on radios and television; some even would perform with music. Eventually, the form of poetry most similar to the Spoken Word we know today originated from the “spats,” Miguel describes, or more correctly, “poetry slams.” Original slam poetry can be seen internationally, like through the common cabaret style-poetry dueling that was popular in India during the 1980s. However, Slam Poetry seemed to have ultimately emerged from the growing popularity of Rap and Hip Hop in the 1980s. With new styles of hip hop art forms, such as freestyle rap, hip hop culture adopted Spoken Word poetry, performing poems in a protest-manner like those of the past, which eventually turned competitive. Later, Slam Poets started to perform for audiences without competition, thus, the origin of Spoken Word Poetry.
The late 1990s and early 2000s found Spoken Word in its cultural height, with the production of the successful television show “Def Poetry Jam” on HBO. Spoken Word gained popularity from the show and moved to colleges, coffee houses, and many of media.
Uncultivated Rabbits actually showcased a popular artist, Shihan, from Def Poetry Jam during Spring Quarter of last year.
“Yeah, he was really nice.” says Isabel. “He did a couple poems from Def Poetry Jam, like ‘Father’s Day’ and ‘This Type Love,’ so it was actually great because we recognized them.”
Uncultivated Rabbits fundraised with Hip Hop Congress and ASUCI to house the popular poet. Miguel, Nghiem, and Isabel all agree that it was probably the best special guest that Uncultivated Rabbits had ever hosted.
On the first of November, Uncultivated Rabbits held their second Open Mic night. Many brought a couple of their own poems, while many others just came to watch. I went over to the Cross Cultural Center, again in the Ring Room. The room was set up almost similarly to that of its Creative Session setup, however, with chairs facing the mural on the side wall of the room, and no tables. There was no podium, nor microphone. Miguel, Isabel, and Nghiem quieted down everyone, and then introduced the show.
First up was Nghiem. He walked up and stood in front of the large mural painted on the side wall of the room. The crowd greeted him with supportive cheers and howls. He provided a short introduction to his poem, “Inspiration.” It was about a friend of his who was a female basketball player, someone whom he believed to be a great inspiration to him, because of her great passion for the sport that she loved.
Complete silence thing heard from the crowd as Nghiem started expressing his admiration for this basketball-playing girl he was talking about. Constant snappings, ‘mhms,’ and some occasional ‘aws’ were injected by the crowd with almost every line. Nghiem’s poem, though short and simple, provided a unique insight into a man’s appreciation of the beauty of passion and dedication. The poem itself created a rhythmic flow that made it feel as if it were someone’s feelings expressed more than words performed. He created a level of dynamics with his tone of voice and speed of speech. When he ended the whole room burst into applause and Nghiem welcomed the next volunteer to the floor.
“I actually didn’t notice this until now,” Nghiem told me during our interview, “A lot of what I write about is about love, women, and beauty. About women who influenced me, and how they should be appreciated more in society.”
Nghiem has performed several female-appreciation poems such as this, like one called “Mirrors,” which expresses his belief that the media’s portrayal of beauty is unfair.
During the interview, Miguel discussed his own inspirations for his poems.
“Like Nghiem, I also write a lot about love, and how women should be treated, and how I feel about women in general. It comes from how I grew up. My dad has very conservative views about women. So my mom and I moved here with my stepdad and I basically grew up without a real male role model. So I talk to my mom about like, treating women with respect. I mean, the way I joke around it doesn’t really reflect that unfortunately. But I just mess around a lot. That’s kind of my thing, ‘comic relief.” I also used to be that guy who like, when he sees a girl who just got dumped by some jerk, would be like, ‘Stop dating these jerks. There are all these different guys out there who would kiss the ground you walk on. Even if its like, covered in shit. It didn’t make sense to me.”
Isabel Bogarin, newly elected club president, explained her motivations for spoken word:
“What I usually write about it, well, I went through a humongous breakup. I was with this guy for three years. So a lot of my pieces are about heartache, sorrow, anger, and bitterness. As I started getting over him I started writing about what was going on, how I was moving on and how I didn’t really care. I also recently came out, so now my poems are about equality, rights, and being gay. “
Isabel said she feels free when she performs her emotions on stage.
“My favorite poem that I wrote was called, “God’s Smudge Mark.” It’s about how I went through a lot of pain through the past year. And how I was no longer gonna hide in the closet. I talked about how finding love is very difficult for me.”
The three board members reflected on how relieving it is to have an outlet to express their emotions.
“I’m glad I have this because I have a niche, where I can express myself without having to worry about what people are gonna say or think about me,” says Isabel. “UR cultivates a form of art, and no one can critique your art. Well, they can, but they can’t critique because you are basically performing your feelings.”
Some Last Words…
Though the Uncultivated Rabbits themselves are at a time of great height for their club, how popular is Spoken Word itself in this day and age?
One of the most popular venues of Spoken Word Poetry known to popular media, “Def Poetry Jam” ended in 2007, and with its end begs the question, where do we see the future of Spoken Word? Surprisingly, Nghiem, Miguel, and Isabel all agree that it has only gotten it start.
“Spoken Word is really important to me,” says Nghiem. “Like Isabel said, it’s my outlet, the way
I express myself. I think in recent years it has become more popular. In times before that, Spoken Word was almost like an underground art form. Which, it was okay to do it, but people didn’t really care. Spoken Word is important to a lot of people, especially young people because it gives them a voice and a place to speak, in places where they never able to before. And with the advent of Def Poetry Jam and Russel Simmons presents, “Brave New Voices,” and other nationwide competition, Spoken Word is definitely making a place for itself now. Again. It is in the spotlight again.”
“I feel like slam poetry, or spoken word has been there for a long time” says Miguel. “But it’s just getting a lot more popular now because of all the open mics and lounges who don’t just do music but have a lot of poetry, even comedy. But also I think it’s getting more popular because it’s getting more associated with hip hop, versus before poetry came from ‘beatnik’ poetry. But it has definitely evolved a lot. Especially ‘cause you don’t just have these old guys. I’ve performed with some of these really old guys. Like, ridiculously old. They’re really beatnik-y. It’s really awkward when they hit on girls our age. I’m like, ‘what are you doing, that’s disgusting,’ ugh!
"But anyway, it actually is pretty cool to see how the older people perform, because you see how Spoken Word has evolved. It’s like going through time again, seeing how they write their poetry compared to how we do now. But in general despite time, we all just want to deliver a message and that is really good because people need poetry. People need art one way or another in their life.”
Though Spoken Word has seemed to have grown throughout the years, there are still a
couple traditions from previous years of performance poetry that have been kept. For example,
the appreciative snap. Nghiem explains proper snap etiquette.
“You snap when you hear a part of a poem that you really like, like an idea or concept or emotion that you, not necessarily have to agree with. But at very least it shows you support them. So like, ‘Some-times, some-rhymes, come out as dumb-rhymes.”
With the budding popularity of Spoken Word, there is then much hope for the world to see more Word artists at venues, coffee houses, and, in this case, at schools. Interested in Spoken Word? Just talk contact the Uncultivated Rabbits, they’ll be sure to welcome you to partake in their art form!
I also asked Nghiem, Miguel, and Isabel if there were any tips, or unspoken rules they would give to any promising Spoken Word artists.
“The first rule, you’re not supposed to talk about.” Says Miguel. “I’m kidding. But seriously, one of the biggest things that the old board recommended to me was, don’t rhyme, every single time, with every line, because that is ass-in-nine. Okay that’s not actually a word but just trying to exemplify what they’re trying to talk about. Don’t try to make every single word rhyme. It’s boring.”
“When you’re writing, don’t stop yourself” advises Isabel. “When you’re brainstorming, just go until you’re done. Then when you review, read it, revise, take out what you don’t like.”
“Put your heart into it” says Nghiem. “Especially when you’re writing. Cause if you don’t put everything into your writing, you can’t put anything into your performance. I guess that’s why it comes out so passionate. Something I don’t like to do is too many movements. That’s when it distracts from the actual piece. It takes away from the piece. Another thing, don’t yell unnecessarily. I went to a Spoken Word Grand Slam final over the summer, and every single perform, regardless of the variety of topics they talked about all yelled and did unnecessary movements.”
And, how would they define Spoken Word in their own, words?
“Spoken Word is verbal expression at its highest level.” Say Nghiem.
“Spoken Word is an art.” Says Isabel.
“Word.” Says Miguel. “I’m kidding. Spoken Word is the necessity for those who cannot
speak. If that makes sense.”
3 UR hosted writing workshops
1 Open Mic Event
-Lengthy interview with 3 UR board members
-4 individual short interviews