By Chery Sutjahjo
Burrowed deep within the Student Center at UCI, an audience is seated in a conference room, all facing forward. The rows of seats are filled, but can't accommodate all who are present; many lean against an open wall or sit on the floor, their eyes trained on the stage in the front of the room. It's 6:30 PM on January 14, 2010, and all who are present are ready and waiting for Project VOICE (Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression) to begin.
A movement headed by Sarah Kay and Philip Kaye, Project VOICE tours the nation seeking to celebrate and inspire self-expression through spoken word. Kay and Kaye focus on encouraging youth to take a closer look at culture, society, and themselves, and to bring it all together through spoken word. On this night, Project VOICE is hosted by UCI’s spoken word club, Uncultivated Rabbits, in a joint effort to inspire creativity and encourage expression.
7:00 rolls around and after some preliminary introductions, the night begins with spoken word pieces by members of Uncultivated Rabbits.
The room is suddenly quiet as the side conversations fizzle out, and the audience waits as the silence settles and the speaker takes to the stage. He stands for a moment, casually gazing around the room, relaxing, taking in his environment, and preparing his performance.
There is no backstage, and there is no spotlight. The only distinction between speaker and audience is the raised platform, elevated one foot off the ground in the front of the room. What is about to unravel is as heart-on-your-sleeve as it could possibly get. As simple as a secret told between friends, the piece that the speaker is ready to share reveals his innermost thoughts and articulates his emotions. He sees his audience ready to listen, opens his mouth, and begins his piece.
"There are two types of leaders. Elevators, or deflators." With confidence and art in his every posture and gesture, he articulates his thoughts with creative syncopation, and for the next few minutes, the audience is in the palm of his hand, riding along with the ups and downs of his tone. He dives into his piece about self-confidence, leadership, and human interactions, with complete sincerity behind every well-crafted phrase and the specific rhythm that defines his piece as spoken word poetry.
The utter stillness of the audience is only interrupted by the occasional pattering of snaps, identifying listeners in the audience who sympathize with his thoughts, understand his experiences, or wish to offer praise for a well-worded phrase. Snap, snap, snap...and the speaker continues, fueled by the knowledge that his audience is drawn to his every line, knowing that they're right there with him understanding how he feels and agreeing with what he says. His stage presence is everything -- the words on the brink of a melody, his gestures illustrating his words, and his ultimate exposure to a room full of strangers ignites interest and curiosity in all who listen. His words are no longer vibrations against ear drums; instead, they breach the visual world and tie the room together in a shared emotional and artistic experience.
He finishes his piece and the sprinkling of snapping turns into a storm of applause. Stepping down from the platform, Andy Tran is greeted by his fellow Uncultivated Rabbits with pats on the back and words of approval. Gradually losing his stage posture and poetic swagger, he transforms back into a regular 20-year old second year at UCI with a unique passion for spoken word and creative expression.
Tran's interest in spoken word was sparked his senior year in high school when he tried out for graduation speaker. A fellow student incorporated spoken word elements into his graduation speech, which piqued Tran's interest. Soon enough, Tran was perusing the Internet watching YouTube videos of his favorite spoken word artists and exposing himself to poetry slams at lounges in the area. "And then my first instinct when I heard it was, 'man, I wonder if I could write this stuff,'" Tran recalls. Since then, Tran has developed a distinct writing style and knack for performing, nurtured by Uncultivated Rabbits. "I came into UCI ready to join two things, and that was Mock Trial and Rabbits," Tran states.
When he joined in 2008, the club had only been around for about three years. The birth child of three friends, Caroline Chang, Nam Ngo, and John Nguyen, Uncultivated Rabbits became a forum for freedom of expression as well as a tool to facilitate an emergent student voice on campus. The club grew to peak membership in about 2006, but as busy schedules and other interests distracted the members and leaders of the club from fully committing to meetings and Mic Nights, the group struggled in maintaining its following and attendance dropped.
The president at the time, Mark Maza, refused to see the club erased from UCI. Gathering a group of loyal Rabbits, he created the first Uncultivated Rabbits board in the winter of 2009 in an attempt to bolster membership and bring structure to the group.
"It was really casual. After a creative session, we just went out to the food court and he bought us some chicken nuggets, and said 'hey, why don't you guys be board?'" recounts Eddy Gana, current internal chair of Uncultivated Rabbits.
Ever since the board was established, the club has gained a stronger membership and defined schedule. Now, Open Mic Nights are held monthly for members and any who wish to participate. Every week consists of a scheduled poetry break or creative session, where members share favorite spoken word artists and pieces, and practice writing creatively on various topics, including truth and lies, consciousness, and current happenings. "It's no secret. UCI is very apathetic. We want to give a voice, so we write pieces about everything, like the budget cuts. We want to inspire people to get out there in the community," says Gana.
Spoken word is certainly being utilized and recognized in the UCI community more and more. Just recently, homecoming court candidate Doris Su presented a spoken word piece, encouraging listeners to see past initial appearances and become more open-minded. Performing her piece at student terrace during lunch hour, her voice and words received much support and enthusiasm from the students present.
More than being a tool for personal expression, spoken word is being utilized to express political views as well. The turmoil that has recently erupted over the issues with racism and freedom of speech has given spoken word relevance in the present. Students arguing for the freedom of speech chose spoken word as a means to express the frustration with the administration they were facing as they struggled to fight for their rights. More and more, spoken word is becoming predominant on campus as a valuable tool for expression as well as an inspirational stimulus for change.
Uncultivated Rabbits highly encourages and facilitates this type of active expression. "[Spoken word is] about self-reflection, responses, and expressing your feelings and getting it out there," says Gana. "Writing is one thing. Vocalizing it is another thing. It's the next step."
A great deal of emphasis is placed on vocalizing within the club, with the first Monday of every month devoted to Open Mic Night. Members are always encouraged to attend and simply listen, or to step up and perform the pieces that they have written. Board member Stephanie Sajor states, "It's the extra [to perform]. Just writing doesn't do it. You want people to hear what you say."
"And hearing the snapping, you know you're not alone. People go through what you're going through, too," chimes in Gana.
Though Open Mic Nights once gathered an audience of 30 to 40 people, the numbers have dropped to an average of fifteen to twenty people per night. Regardless of the amount of people present, the intimate environment is always present. Though not all of the attendees know each other, they are friendly, open-minded, and welcoming. "It's a hub for self expression. We encourage everyone to say what they think is on their minds, but at the same time to be respectful of others," says Sajor.
The respectful and open-minded environment is certainly noticeable at the Open Mic Night on February 1st. After several introductions and club procedures, the performances begin, and instantly the energy and support within the room rises. The comfort and camaraderie within the group is evident -- everyone is willing to spill their most heartfelt emotions within the forum of creative spoken word. The lack of a stage or a microphone blurs the lines between performer and observer, resulting in a comfortable and close environment where all truths can be bared without fear of judgment.
The members present pieces about homesickness, love, and the skewed ideals of beauty in modern society, among other topics. All pieces are welcomed with open arms, and listeners become actively involved in the pieces by snapping their sentiments and agreements.
By the time everyone has said their piece, a subtle comfort has settled within the room, stemming from the deep experience that is sharing thoughts and emotions within a creative form. The Mic Night is over. Congregating towards the middle of the room, the members form a circle with their fists in the center. Shoulder to shoulder, they chant "reproduce!" before scattering off into their separate lives, to cultivate creative articulation and find inspiration wherever they go.