Though sometimes glitchy, poet D. Ruff can’t help but savor the enthusiasm as the virtual audience responds over Zoom to a familiar rallying cry from the comfort of their home.
"If you can feel it,” he yells. “You can speak it!” those on the call yell back.
Nothing had ever stopped the “If You Can Feel it, You Can Speak It” open mic, which is usually held in Jamaica Plain. They hadn’t missed a night in ten years. Then the coronavirus outbreak put a stop to the monthly gathering, says co-founder Jha D Williams.
“I was talking to the team and I was like, guys this is not going to work,” says Jha D, who prefers to be referred to be her first name. “Like, this is unacceptable. I am pissed off. I am crying. We cannot go out like this. And I was like, let's just let's try to do it virtually.”
It’s National Poetry Month and as people are forced to stay home, virtual open mics have become one way artists share words and emotions.
Audre Lorde wrote that poetry is not a luxury. She called it a “vital necessity of our existence.” If there was any time their community needed this space to share art, Jha D knew it was now. They’re now meeting weekly, a support group that offers an escape from daily life. At the first Zoom open mic, Star Chung held her daughter as she recited a poem she wrote for her. Her wife got emotional as she listened.
Chung says she began writing this poem early in her pregnancy, trying to record and capture every moment, every memory.
“How is it that I already know I love you before I’ve even met you? Constantly thinking of you, hoping that you're doing good, while also hoping that I'll do good by you, knowing that you will always be able to count on me to be your number one fan. Be there to wipe your tears, bandage your wounds, discipline your character, but still kiss you goodnight…”
Jha D says the virtual open mic allows them to be present with each other.
“There’s very few poems about COVID on the open mic or when people do a poem about COVID, there's a trigger warning first,” Jha D says. “This is not something that we set up. Like we did not dictate this parameter. But like folks from whatever reason have decided on their own that the mic is the retreat from COVID.”
Yara Liceaga-Rojas, another Boston artist, curated one of three nights for a new virtual venue on Zoom called the Cloud Cafe. The endeavor is the brain child of organizers Derek Schwartz and Lily Xie and serves as a fundraiser and virtual performance series to support artists who have lost work due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Artists sang, recited monologues and poems. There was a piece of performance art by artist Lío Villahermosa in Puerto Rico. The audience turned off their video and muted themselves as saxophonist Tim Hall recited a poem.
“Trust the process of you. Trust the process of your hope. Trust the process of your delivery,” Hall says.
Liceaga-Rojas says she felt it was important to give people a moment of ease during this time. She opened with a poem of her own. She calls it “Sobre la pausa” or “Regarding this pause.”
“This is an experiment. This is an invitation. Our behaviors pressed against reality. The juice provoking days of ourselves becoming sedentary parties holding the underwater fireworks of our brains. Look at you. Now really, look at you. Now, you can look. Now, you have to.”
“I'm very aware that the audience has a very narrow attention span right now because they're too overwhelmed by reality,” Liceaga-Rojas says. “And then for the first time when I know, I don't know if for the first time, but in my lifetime, I've never, ever experienced something like this with such an insecure future.”
Sitting there watching this felt as if the lights were down in a theatre. Then on-screen was Cuatro Player Fabiola Mendez, who sang a slow, solemn song in Spanish about how everything changes. It’s not an easy time to create art, Liceaga-Rojas says, but it’s crucial.
Carol Chock of Ithaca, NY, and Liceaga-Rojas’ mother-in-law, was in the virtual audience that evening and expressed what the performances meant to her.
“I feel like I’ve been on all these Zoom calls for my work and I've been there for other families and helping to entertain different young grandchildren,” Chock says. “And I had to shut all feelings to do all of that. But this just gave a space to enable me to feel. And I really appreciate that.”
Toni Morrison wrote, “We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” With every new poem written for each day of April. With those willing to perform at a virtual open mic because it feels less scary than real life.
As artists make new spaces online to share. This is one way to heal, to cope, through artistic expression and vulnerability.
This segment aired on April 27, 2020.