On Wednesday, sophomore Lara Haft convened the Coffeehouse and asked all of us to turn off our normal audience-participation mode (read: quiet, no thumbs tapping on screens, no murmurs to disturb the performers). Disturbance, she explained, should be the norm for this event. She reminded us—or, explained—that this was a poetry slam, and we—slouched and standing and sipping nice drinks—would need to give to the performers so that they could give back. “So, that means snapping,” Haft said, demonstrating, “and if you like what they’re saying, if it speaks to you, say mmmm!”
And mmmms were said. We gave so that they could give back. The evening—under the heady title “Apartness: Poetry, Race, and the Ethics of Storytelling”—began with a slew of diverse slam poets from Duke and Durham and everywhere in between. There was a high-schooler who spoke with elegant immediacy about her race and family history; there was G Yamazawa, a Durham native and the 2014 National Poetry Slam Winner. He performed poems about identity and growing up as a North Carolina-born Japanese-American (“Make some noise if you grew up in an immigrant household!”). His language drifted in and out of conversational Japanese; his parents and his grandmother were in the crowd, laughing in response to G’s family jokes.
I’d attended spoken word events before, but perhaps never listened as closely. I was struck by how all the poems performed on Wednesday spoke so distinctly to where each of the performers comes from: their families, their ethnicities, their histories. Each piece was inextricable from its speaker; each piece was unapologetic presence. Collectively, they felt like origin stories unfurled in real time. Lara, who spent her summer as a Kenan Summer Fellow conducting oral histories with woman veterans of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements in Birmingham, Alabama and Cape Town, South Africa, respectively, shared a poem about what it felt like to be a “wannabe poet with a research grant.” I edited Lara’s letters home over the summer but hadn’t met her in person until this week. Through her letters, I had one idea of her story and how she came into this particular research project. I watched (and edited) as she moved through different communities and physical geographies, trying to reconcile her outsiderness—her apartness—in each one. In her powerful final piece, she writes about her journal from the summer, which was unexpectedly destroyed:
I flipped gingerly through the soggy pages, taking stock of everything I’d written. Since I’d started the notebook, at the beginning of the summer, I’d filled 157 pages. There are doodles, to-do lists, notes scribbled during my interviews. There’s the first version of these blog posts, notes to self, drafted poems about parking lots, single mothers, and mince-meat pies. There’s Eileen’s kitchen table, where she shows me newspaper clippings and I give her computer lessons. There’s the scent of frying samosas in Davinia’s kitchen, where her stories of anti-apartheid marches blend with the sound of bubbling oil.
I realize it’s not a moral or perfect phrasing I need for my poems, but these flickering, precarious images. It’s these moments, suspended in ink, over which I feel like a guardian. There’s a certain ink-blotness of time, a blurring that seeps in from the edges. Decades leak like open water bottles, memories fade to pinks and oranges. Stories of the past warp and whither, from time or misspellings or the solubility of ink.
Reading something on paper and hearing it in person are never the same, right? Each form gives a different effect; each encounter with the material produces a different response. During the panel that followed the performances, Professors Adriane Lentz-Smith (Duke) and Randall Kenan (UNC), along with G Yamazawa, talked about the preservation and passage of stories from their different disciplinary perspectives. They talked about what their work aims to do; as a historian, Lentz-Smith explained, she “pushes people to inhabit,” whereas a poet might “push people to see.” All storytellers, they agreed that the ethics of storytelling are endlessly complicated, but that there is worth, after all, in the telling. The worth circles back to the ethical responsibility of the teller. It’s about “making your choices visible,” Lentz-Smith said. Coming together that evening and listening to each others’ stories felt like an exercise in visibility—an acknowledgement of apartness, but a movement, if even for a few hours’ time, toward togetherness.