Saturday, April 12, 2008

No Poetry at the Mall by Herpreet Singh

From Sweet Tooth, Issue #2, April 12, 2008

"The mall is not a public space.” It was two Christmases ago in 2006, but this is the proclamation Taylor James remembers the mall security guard making before she used her camera phone to capture his image.

Thomas Hinyard recalls the way the guerilla poetry began: "Our fearless leader, Anna-the-queen-of-poetry, and her sidekick xero asked us what we wanted to do for our Christmas party, a potluck at Anna’s house, or go to the mall and do poetry.”

Thomas is now an eleventh grader at Broadmoor High School. Taylor is an eleventh grader at Episcopal High School. Jessica Cole, a student at Glen Oaks High School at the time, is a freshman at Southern University. They are members of WordCrew, a group of poets who write and perform as part of the Big Buddy teen writing program WordPlay. They say it was a unanimous decision to perform at The Mall of Louisiana.

Thomas is animated when he speaks. "It was the last time we were going to get together for the year. It was just a normal Sunday. The sun was out, birds were chirping. I’d just gotten out of church.
"We ate dinner at the food court. It was about twenty of us. After dinner, we started… Everyone was lookin’ at us like we were crazy. People were guiding their children up out of the way like they were scared, like we were the Black Panthers and were about to have a protest.

"Then we moved upstairs. We continued spittin’. We went downstairs. Someone did a poem called 'The SAT is Not a Test for Poets.’ Finally, we had a big crowd. A circle.”

Jessica jumps in, "Someone else got in the circle to spit. Then the security guard comes up. He’s like, 'Excuse me. Excuse me. Whatever you’re doing here, spoken word, poetry, whatever it is, you’re not allowed to do it in the mall.’ Then he says, 'Have a merry Christmas.’”

They remember that Chancelier "xero” Skidmore, manager of WordPlay, asked, "We can’t perform poetry in the mall?” The guard answered, "No, sir.”

Anna West, Director of Teen Programs for the Big Buddy Program, remembers the guard declaring, "Sir, there’s no poetry in the mall.” They were told to either leave or disperse and stop reading poetry.
If the mall, practically a second home for many adolescents, is not a public space, and there is no poetry in the mall, what is the "right” space for youth spoken word artists in Baton Rouge? Where does any art form generated by youth and aimed at both youth and adult audiences belong? Is there a space for it, or are we just too scared of teenagers to allow for one?

I wonder if twenty teenagers banned from performing poetry in the mall is not symptomatic of a larger obstacle in a city striving to nurture a thriving art scene. Maybe Baton Rouge is not prepared to absorb art to its fullest spectrum. The knee-jerk-reaction is to deem work with which we are unfamiliar and uncomfortable to be out-of-place, weird, too risqué, too avant garde, ugly or just plain inappropriate. Isn’t this exactly what we do to teenagers all the time? Is there hope that Baton Rouge can eventually appreciate unfamiliar art forms before making judgments – even somewhere as mainstream as the mall at Christmas time?

Taylor, her voice softening to a near-amazed whisper, reminisces, "People were stopping to listen – just stopping what they were doing and watching. They were getting into it. They saw us snapping when we liked what was being said, and the audience just figured it out and joined in snapping.” She adds, "Poets are just like any other performer. You see them in rare form in front of an audience.”

I ask Thomas why he thought Anna and xero gave WordCrew the option to perform at the mall. "I think they wanted to test us, to see how we would showcase ourselves and how audiences would receive us. We’d been training for so long that they wanted to get us out there to show what we could do.”

The WordCrew All City Teen Poetry Slam is in its second year. It will kick off in April, and slam finals will take place at the Manship Theatre on May 2nd and 3rd. The four winning teen poets will go on to represent Baton Rouge at the national slam competition Brave New Voices.

*photo by Taylor James
LINK TO STORY: No Poetry at the Mall

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