New College voices heard alongside poets and producers of film festival entry "To Be Heard"

All photos Martin Steele/Catalyst

Sticks and stones may break one’s bones, but words can do so much more. Spoken by a skilled literary craftsperson, words can hurt or heal, inspire laughter or tears and change the way a listener sees a particular subject. These are the tools of the trade for the slam poet, and little by little, through various local events and opportunities, New College is becoming intimately acquainted with them.

New College students had one such opportunity last Thursday at Bookstore 1 Sarasota, as they were invited to share a stage with artists involved with the slam poetry documentary To Be Heard, which was screened at the Sarasota Film Festival (SFF).

The guests of honor were Pearl Quick and Karina Sanchez, two of the three South Bronx poets whose life-changing creative experiences with the spoken-word scene form the basis for the documentary. Joining them from New York were Roland Legiardi-Laura, director/producer of To Be Heard and the founder and director of The Power Writers Program, and Amy Sultan, a fellow producer for the film. Two of New College’s own — second-year James “Jimmy” Carter and I — also had a chance to step up to the microphone, as did a couple of brave audience members, like a high schooler considering attending New College next fall and an older gentleman who conquered an initial bout of stage fright to deliver a charmingly entertaining tale of Punxsutawney Phil and Ponce de Leon. Eschewing the cutthroat competitive spirit of a typical poetry slam (Legiardi-Laura assured the audience, in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek tone of his poetry, that authentic poetry slams are bitter, bloody battles to the death), the participants took turns delivering samples of their work, some reading from dog-eared, heavily-annotated papers while others performed from memory, and a few even improvised their selections right on the spot.

Though this particular event was associated with the SFF and hosted off-campus, it reflects a growing active Novocollegian subculture of writers and poets who participate in the local spoken-word scene. The students primarily responsible for organizing the New College side of Thursday’s reading, third-year Lacey Sigmon and first-year Farrell Ocasio, both attributed the trend largely to the recent on-campus visits by Anis Mojgani and Andrea Gibson, both of whom are extremely experienced and prolific spoken-word artists.

For Sigmon, spoken word is entirely new terrain. “I was expecting bongos,” she joked, describing her unfamiliarity with the subject prior to seeing Mojgani speak. She said that she was extremely impressed with what she heard from him, as well as what she has been hearing from New College’s poets, and hopes to continue exploring the subject while helping NCF writers do the same.

Ocasio also hopes to see more like Mojgani on campus and interacting with students. “It was a big deal getting him here,” she told the Catalyst. “I think if the interest continues … there’s a lot of people I would love to have come here.”

She sees spoken word as a unique way for student writers to connect with the community, as well as with their on-campus peers. “Spoken word for me has always been part overt and part quiet,” she said. “You never know who’s going to come up and bust out with the most amazing style, but but it is still very much this external performance.

“I love how it’s so different depending on who’s performing it, how the performance is such a big part of it,” Ocasio continued. “You’re not just reading the words, you’re getting a taste of that individual.”

Recently, many poetically-inclined students have been attempting to band together with their fellow NCF wordsmiths, inspired either by the presence of big names like Mojgani and Gibson or simply a desire to connect with kindred spirits. For instance, Ocasio has been trying to organize a spoken word collective and workshop, and Carter participated in a student-run free-writing circle last semester, though both unfortunately petered out due to scheduling and attendance concerns. Even so, there certainly does seem to exist an enthusiastic, if disorganized, underground community of creative writers at New College. According to Ocasio, the writing community here can potentially have access to a vast pool of untapped potential, should they be willing to work together and get involved in the larger Sarasota writing scene.

According to Ocasio and Sigmon, no specific names have been confirmed yet, but both would like to see more professional poets visit the campus in the future. Carter said that he would like to see To Be Heard screened on campus and perhaps a visit from its poets and producers, and Legiardi-Laura expressed similar enthusiasm for the concept – provided an event can be funded. Georgia Court, the host for Thursday’s reading at Bookstore 1 Sarasota, also said that she would enjoy working with New College poets again, and invites any interested students to attend the bookstore’s poetry-reading events in the future.

Bookstore 1 Sarasota is located at 1359 Main Street in the heart of downtown Sarasota. Students interested in future poetry events can visit their website, www.bookstore1sarasota.com, or call them at 941-365-7900.

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