Since the advent of language, poetry has been performed both for dramatic effect and to raise awareness among listeners of issues that concern them. It is among the most ancient, and useful, of art forms.
Over the millennia, poetry has evolved, but it’s never abandoned topical subjects or relinquished its ability to communicate essential truths. In recent decades, poets in urban centers, including the Charleston area, have raised their voices in protest and have crafted pointed observations on political and social themes. They have forged new populist categories, especially spoken-word poetry, rap and hip-hop.
And they have taken to the bars and clubs with their verses about grace and disgrace, angst and love, performing for growing audiences eager for the sort of visceral experience mere reading can’t provide.
In the Holy City, performed poetry has caught on. You can find it somewhere nearly every week. Slam competitions award prizes to poet-proclaimers courageous enough and dynamic enough to open minds. And young, aspiring writers are finding a domain in which they might test their wordsmithing skills.
The Charleston metro area has its poet-leaders, of course, established writers with published books to their names, but also younger scribes as comfortable on stage as in front of a computer screen.
Courtnay the Poet (Courtnay Coan) is an Awendaw native who spends the bulk of her time these days organizing poetry events.
Matthew Foley, a regular in public poetry circles, organized the Holy City Youth Slam. He was hired in 2014 to teach poetry at the Charleston County School of the Arts.
Marcus Amaker also is a nearly constant presence in town. When he’s not performing, he’s organizing other performers.
There are others: Derek Berry and Liz Coralli, for instance. They find a friendly niche behind the microphone at East Bay Street Meeting House, which hosts weekly poetry readings, or at Elliotborough Mini Bar, which hosts a monthly poetry night. Sometimes bigger, ticketed events are planned — at the Charleston Music Hall, at Omar Shrine, at the School of the Arts.
The poet-activists have a simple objective: to get more people to participate and “show them that going to a poetry show is a good time,” Foley said.
Way back when, most people were not terribly literate. Those who were had an advantage. Through declarative poetry, they conveyed important ideas and information — about love, philosophy, politics and history.
The ancient Greeks were especially good at performing poetry, which typically appeared in the form of stage dramas. Fast forward to 16th-century England and you get the verses of Shakespeare. Fast forward to the 1970s and you get Gil Scott-Heron, who was among the earliest practitioners of “spoken-word poetry,” which differs from regular poetry because of its musical or rhythmic accompaniment and often features word play and storytelling. Fast forward to 1993 and the start of the long-running “Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor and you get daily poetry recitations on the radio and online. Fast forward to 2015 and you get Spike Lee’s movie “Chi-Raq,” an adventurous adaptation of “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes, featuring a script written almost entirely in verse.
Along the way, rap and hip-hop blossomed in the late 1970s and 1980s, originally as a form of competitive verbal showmanship among those living in poor urban centers. Since 1990, the National Poetry Slam has brought together spoken word artists from France, Canada and the U.S. who compete in team and individual categories.
Meanwhile, clubs and bars increasingly are welcoming performing poets, and in the Charleston area, the troubadours are gaining a significant following.
Coan, 32, now earns her living from poetry. She’s writing a little less of it in favor of producing events large and small that showcase young talent, she said.
She was a theater major at the School of the Arts, then studied theater at S.C. State University before moving to Charlotte in 2005 where she got into a poetry scene more developed than the one here. She was a small fish in a big pond, she said. But hooked. The AME Church also provided an outlet for her creativity.
Her grandmother encouraged her to memorize the poetry before performing it; her mother has provided important critical feedback. Coan said her poetry often reflects her interest in gender issues and women’s empowerment.
“I like to be the voice of women,” she said. “At one point, they used to call me the male basher. But it wasn’t so much male bashing as celebrating women.”
In 2008, she returned to the Lowcountry, reconvened with friends and started participating in slams. Soon she was organizing them — at Huger’s, Rendevous, Blue Magic, all now closed. At the beginning of her poetic sojourns through Charleston, perhaps 45 people would attend, most of them friends and family showing support, Coan said. Nowadays, she puts together several large poetry slams at Omar Shrine in Mount Pleasant and draws 1,500. (Smaller, regular poetry nights are hosted by Ocean Cowboys in Ladson.)
“I knew what it was (like) to be a poet and perform in front of small crowds,” she said. “It was hard. So if I can create a platform for other poets to get big crowds, that is more important to me.”
In 2010, Coan expanded the circumference of her operation, organizing events in Columbia. She’s been known to collaborate with other poets and artists, venturing into the realm of spoken word.
Today, she’s planning an all-female poetry and music event called “She Rocks,” to be mounted this spring.
Amaker is the area’s most visible proponent of performed poetry. He takes the stage frequently and works quietly behind the scenes promoting the scene. He was called on to join S.C. Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth in co-authoring a poem for the recent inauguration of Mayor John Tecklenburg. In 2014, he made a record with local drummer Quentin Baxter called “The New Foundation” which combines Amaker’s original verse with impeccable jazz rhythms.
Amaker also maintains a new website, Charleston Poets, which provided event information and invites submissions.
He noted that the downtown and North Charleston scenes, both vibrant, are a little different. Downtown, it’s more multicultural and there’s more recited poetry; in North Charleston, the poets — predominantly black and more politicized, concerned with the impacts of gentrification, crime and economic disparities — embrace spoken word a bit more fervently and collaborate more.
Though the two scenes are not mutually exclusive. There’s plenty of interaction, Amaker said. And local poets, in general, “get together regularly and talk about our latest work.”
The public, though, is just now starting to catch on.
“While (poetry performances) have been around forever, it seems to be in its infant stage in terms of people being familiar with the art form,” Amaker noted.
Occasionally, a listener ill-acquainted with spoken word will approach him after a show to say, “I really liked your speech.”
Well, a speech it’s not.
“I go inward when I’m on stage and really channel the emotions of the poem, knowing I’ll be connecting with people, because these are universal themes,” Amaker said. “Poetry is no different from jazz, or any art form that requires a microphone. You’re just connecting with people in a way.”
With more experience writing and performing, Amaker is becoming less and less introspective, he said.
“When I started, I was writing from an egocentric place, (writing about) specific things about my life,” he said. “Now, I’m writing more from a universal standpoint. It’s more fulfilling, because people can relate easier.”
Amaker works with Foley, Derek Berry and Liz Coralli putting together spoken word events at Elliotborough Mini Bar (second Thursday of the month) and Pure Theatre (last Tuesday of the month).
Foley also is responsible for the Holy City Youth Slam, open to Charleston area youths age 12-18. The Youth Slam runs two workshops and one performance event each month.
Foley’s been active in the local poetry scene for about three years, he said. He found his way in via East Bay Meeting House, participating in Monday night readings. Amaker pulled him further into the world of weighted words, helping Foley publish books, creating a dynamic website and collaborating on events.
He said the newer trends such as slam competitions and spoken word are the progeny of traditional poetry. “All of us read that stuff, love that stuff,” Foley said. What’s different is all in the presentation.
And contemporary presentation is influenced by the Internet, which has made poetry into a visual and dynamic art form, he added. Take, for example, the Button Poetry channel on YouTube, which showcases young performers and gets regular updates.
“There is the sense ... that it’s something very old being made new again,” Foley observed. “It’s not tossing out Walt Whitman or Pablo Neruda. It’s just making common themes — love, death, spirituality — make sense for the 21st century.”
Reach Adam Parker at (843) 937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.