Strolling along Market Street in downtown Lowell on a Tuesday evening, everything’s pretty quiet. As dusk fades colors to shades of gray, the only activity seems to emanate from a few bars with televisions flickering at empty stools.
But amid an otherwise mundane weekday night, a standing-room-only crowd at Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus overflows onto the street. The people have come to recite their written creations, or to find inspiration in the words of others.
More than 20 of them step to the mic. Some read from journals, others from their smartphones; some emote and act, others simply recite. As a young woman reading before an audience for the first time begins to cry, supportive finger snaps and hoots rise up from the listeners. Later, a young poet has the room laughing as he begins his recitation with, “Yes, it’s a kilt,” because, yes, he’s wearing a kilt.
These are the new faces of poetry in the Merrimack Valley, a place that once inspired icons such as Anne Bradstreet, John Greenleaf Whittier and Robert Frost. To the disdain of some traditionalists, many of these young poets have discarded the classic approach of their forebears. Using a style known as free verse, these young artists express themselves without the restraints of rhyme and meter.
“I don’t sling words, I sling ideology,” Lowell’s Nani Swaminathan declares passionately into the microphone. “My voice is telling you to speak up.”
This call to expression is resonating like never before with local youths, but it didn’t happen overnight.
“What’s been going on below the radar for a long time is how excited young people can be about poetry, both writing it and speaking publicly,” says Lou Bernieri, director of Phillips Academy’s Andover Bread Loaf, a youth literacy project that Bernieri founded in 1987. “It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s a movement.”
Bread Loaf works to organize programs in schools and community organizations in disadvantaged communities such as Lawrence. The goal is to get kids interested in creative writing and social justice, a combination that engages both students and teachers, Bernieri says. The “spoken word” movement, he adds, has upped the ante on expression.
“We give these kids a safe place to express themselves,” Bernieri says. “Being heard is a critical part of the whole thing. … People don’t give them these safe spaces. They don’t know how to open up kids, and it’s not that complicated.”
Programs similar to Andover Bread Loaf have helped plant the roots of the free verse movement in Lawrence. El Taller, a bookstore/cafe opened in October 2012 by Mary Guerrero, co-owner of Cafe Azteca, and her two sons, has given it a venue where it can blossom. Bernieri calls El Taller a “lightning rod” for creativity in the city.
The potential of such a venue can be seen in Lowell, where Brew’d Awakening owner Andy Jacobson began holding regular open mic nights in 2007. It was there that a young poet named Anthony Febo discovered his love of performing before becoming a founder of the spoken word movement in the Mill City.
Febo, an aspiring rapper in high school, discovered spoken word at the suggestion of a friend, and he found the atmosphere to be much more inviting than the competitive world of hip-hop. He attended the first-ever open mic night at Brew’d and decided to perform. At the end of the session, the hosts held a “slam” in which poets were given a score for their performance. Febo won, and by the time the next event was held, he was its host and chief organizer. He spent the next six years spreading the positive vibes of spoken word to as many young people as he could.
“Our goal was to introduce the culture of spoken word to Lowell,” Febo says.
To accomplish that, Febo and local poets Masada Jones and Joey Banh created FreeVerse!, a workshop-based program that has fostered the literary creativity of young people much like Bread Loaf has in Lawrence.
As FreeVerse! grew, a new generation of young poets began to emerge. FreeVerse! began sending teams to poetry slams across the state. In May its youth team (ages 14 -19) took second place out of 24 teams at the Louder Than a Bomb Massachusetts Youth Poetry Slam Festival held at Boston University’s Huntington Theatre.
“We don’t stress competition,” Febo says. “We stress healing and community and growing through this medium. We don’t breed poetry; we breed amazing individuals, and use poetry as a tool to get them there.”
Two members of Free Verse!, Ricky Orng and Princess Chan, have taken the reins from Febo both at FreeVerse! and in hosting Brew’d Awakening open mic nights. Orng says he is evidence of how poetry can transform a young person.
“Poetry grew me as a person and taught me how to be comfortable around other people,” Orng says. “I see kids going through the same process at our workshops. When they see someone in class sharing a piece, many times it’s inspiring: ‘Wow, I learned more about this person. Let me use this as a tool to learn more about myself.’ ”
As he drove a van full of FreeVerse! students to New York City recently, Orng was struck by the conversations of the next generation of Merrimack Valley poets.
“They were so appreciative of how poetry, how spoken word, and how FreeVerse! came into their lives,” Orng says. “They talk about their teachers, and how proud they are to be from Lowell. To be at such a young age and appreciate that is amazing.”
Swaminathan says she learned to hone her voice at Brew’d Awakening open mic nights, transforming her from an awkward teenager into a person who can command an audience. The greatest benefit of this poetry uprising, she believes, is what it does for young people still learning to express themselves.
“It gives them a voice, it gives them an outlet, and it gives them an audience,” she says.
Andover Bread Loaf
Brew’d Awkening Coffeehaus