There is a moment of absolute silence after the poet takes the stage and before the stanzas begin to flow where the world seems to stand still, arch its neck towards the microphone, and listen.
Tuscaloosa, with its abundance of live poetry readings, is no stranger to these moments. At these events, new life is loosed upon the words of the poet, and the art form of the printed word is transformed into a public anthem.
Dr. Sara Pirkle Hughes is the mastermind behind the Pure Products poetry readings, an endeavor through the department of English with over a decade of events behind it. Hughes joined Pure Products as a co-host when she assumed a faculty position at the university two years ago; now, she commands the ship with determination and are.
“Poetry is meant to be heard; it is meant to be performed. eir performances bring the work to life,” said Hughes.
It is an unfortunate fact that the majority of exposure Americans have with poetry rarely transcends the printed page. Certain names come to mind – Shakespeare, Plath, Whitman – that remind us of clunky high school textbooks that do little to ignite an excitement about the art form. Historically, poetry has always maintained a strong connection with the oral tradition. Epic poetry in particular, such as the Odyssey or Beowulf, exists today because of the strong oral tradition that allowed these words to survive generation after generation.
“People want to hear songs and stories – it’s in our DNA,” said Hughes.
Dr. Brian Whalen, who teaches creative writing in the English department, is a co-collaborator on the Pure Products readings. He is also the genius behind the [Name is] Open Mic Series, which allows undergraduates from all backgrounds the chance to debut original work on a p
ublic platform. Much of Whalen’s own writing, including pieces he has performed at Pure Products events, is centered around the loss of his sister, who struggled greatly with substance abuse during her life. rough open mic nights, he has seen students of all trades o er up their own stories in similar ways as a means of connecting.
“It’s a celebration of what’s common between us: the need to be heard, and the desire and empathy to hear and relate to another person’s story. ere is a deeper kind of human experience, and community celebration, that’s going on under the surface of things,” Whalen said.
Becca Isphording, an undergraduate, was a newcomer to the [Name is] reading held earlier this February at UPerk. Before, she had never disclosed her poetry to others apart from a few close friends. She cited previous life experiences and an awareness of important social movements as the driving force behind her writing.
“I have turned to poetry for everything since I was seven years old. But until tonight, I’ve never done anything like that,” said Isphording.
The poem Isphording presented was personal, though she often works within the realm of activist poetry, a genre that walks the line between art, discourse, and social criticism. She cited slam poetry as an art form that thrives in the spoken environment, its rhythm an irreproducible component that offers the opportunity for deeper consideration.
Poetry readings around Tuscaloosa also draw a diverse crowd of spectators, among them open mic aficionados, poetic amateurs, and total newcomers alike. Sarah Deutsch, a junior in the Honors College, was one of the latter during a cheeky “anti-love” reading on Valentine’s Day at Monarch Espresso Bar. Deutsch indicated she was interested in seeking out the various artistic pockets in Tuscaloosa. The experience of exorcising previous experiences through poetry as a form of therapy was something Whalen and Isphording noted, yet the cathartic e ect manifested in the audience as well.
“I feel a lot better after tonight— I’ve been very stoic recently working on schoolwork all the time, but I feel like my mind has been cleared and I can work better now,” Deutsch said.
As the Pure Products and [Name is] Open Mic events continue onward, what is certain is the indelible influence live poetry has on the Tuscaloosa community. It is an art form that is democratic, unfettered, bursting at the seams, and just one of the facets that demonstrates that the arts scene in Tuscaloosa is as resolute and unflinching as the city itself.