A World of Verse

Flash back to April. It’s Shakespeare’s birthday/deathday, and Katie and I are in a coffee shop, nervously moving tables around until the clock strikes 7:30 pm. Chinese, expat, all sorts of people filter in, and sit at the tables with drinks and random pads of paper. We welcome them, and our Great Experiment begins: our very own Hangzhou poetry slam.

I’ve participated in poetry slams before, but will admit that it had been a while (though I can still remember pacing backstage as I ran through a young poem I’d only recently written). I’d done it in Decorah, Iowa, a very warm community that welcomed anyone to try and never faulted anyone that did. That was what the spirit of poetry events ought to be in my mind, and Katie agreed, having been in poetry events herself in the US. Sadly, the school-run poetry events that I’d attended at Zhejiang University were very stilted, complete with professors offering critique after each one, though it was advertised as a mere poetry reading. “It needs…more,” they would say, and everyone would ‘mmmm’ though I’d read an English poem that no one understood. I thought of that moment in Amadeus when the critique was “too many notes.” This felt so wrong for poetry. I never saw people laugh or smile or go “mmhmm” or “yeah!” during the poems, and as they were read, they felt like static pages dropped from a book. Katie and I agreed: we could do better. (Besides, if you want something to exist in the world, you have to create it yourself.)

Pass over a couple bumpy poetry nights, some successful because of the enthusiastic participants, others less-so because we hadn’t quite tapped into the literary community just yet and had sparse turnouts. We substituted slams for writing activities, and then…

Fast forward to now. November 19, the day before my 27 birthday (a number that always seemed faraway until I actually reached it.) The room is packed, and as we announce the sign-up sheet for both the slam and the open mic portion, people come forward with enthusiasm. Some of the writers clutch their notebooks to their chests and apologize before even beginning, and by the end, they’re loud and clear in the slam as we say “tell me more! Keep going!” with our applause. First-timers say “I’ll be back!” as we hand out the prizes (this time, English books instead of random keychains), and even when the event ends, poets linger to share more. “Have you read this poem?” “I liked this line that you said! Tell me more!” “Can we hang out more?” There’s a hunger for the written word, a need perhaps cultivated by the surrounding blare of Chinese characters on the streets. In class or attending lectures, I feel as though there is simply too much to say, but no way to get it out because I simply lack the vocabulary. And yet here we are, making verses, sharing words, and arriving at those big numbers in our lives without a second thought and with a hunger for even more.

I’m not sure what the future will hold for these events, but I do hope that the welcoming spirit that found me in Decorah and took me by the hand into the world of spoken poetry continues to live on in Hangzhou.