Personal Statement: Why Performance Poetry?

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[photo by Jonathan Weiskopf.]

[photo by Jonathan Weiskopf.]

Once considered an underground niche art form, Slam Poetry venues can now be found in almost every major US city and beyond. Slam Poetry (created by socialist construction worker turned poet Marc Smith) is the competitive art of Performance Poetry and Spoken Word. Poets share original poems that consider writing, stage performance, and vocal techniques and are judged by a random grouping of audience members. The genre is inherently dramatic and confessional, drawing its influences from traditional poetic form, theater & monologue, hiphop, punk rock, and the cross-cultural traditions of oral storytelling. Caroline Harvey is a leader in the field, and she has spent the last 14 years sharing her passion for Spoken Word with audiences and students all over the world.

Caroline’s personal history brought her into adulthood feeling isolated, silenced, and disconnected from her authentic self. A creative and introverted learner with rare abilities to see and process audio visual stimuli, Caroline was (like so many others) misdiagnosed, miscategorized, and made to feel flawed by a culture that values impossible physical ideals. Many well-meaning and intelligent Western medicine experts offered labels in attempt to make sense of her experience: bipolar disorder, learning disorder, seizure disorder, eating disorder, depression, anxiety, mixed episode behavioral disorder, attention deficit disorder, sensory processing disorder…you name a bodily function, they found a way to label it broken. And while those are real conditions with important treatment plans and protocols, nothing about the process felt healing to Caroline. Sometimes the labels helped to make things clearer, but often the diagnosis just made her feel more outcast and unlovable. And in the meantime, diagnosis or no diagnosis, Caroline lived daily with great suffering and self-loathing that took the form of deep sadness,  dangerously restrictive eating patterns, long periods of isolation, suicide attempts & cutting, an inability to maintain healthy personal boundaries, and drug & alcohol abuse.

Pulled by a universal and inextinguishable inner voice and inspired by a community that didn’t give up on her, Caroline pursued her work as an artist, writer, dancer and performer. She continued to seek necessary help from Western medicine, but also continued her search for healing in the practices of yoga, her First Nation and Jewish roots, in literature and visual art, in the teachings of Buddhism, naturopathy, homeopathy, and more. One day a renowned psychopharmacologist — sharing Caroline’s acute frustration that the recent arrangement of pills had backfired and nothing seemed to “work” — pulled out a print of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Together they stared at the painting and talked about what they saw in the dark hues and frenetic brush strokes. The doctor asked Caroline what she thought Vincent must have been seeing and hearing on a daily basis to create such a robust and important piece of art. Caroline felt a stark truth in that moment: that the bodies & brains we’re given are ours for the long haul. She became immediately conscious that she had a unique biological make-up and she could either let it overwhelm her, or she could learn to maneuver and master it. And it seemed true, there in that office staring at a dog-eared print of Starry Night, that the art she longed to make and the service she was compelled to accomplish were only possible if she agreed to work with the tools she had been given. She felt, for the first time, that her so-called disorders might be assets that the artist and activist she was becoming could really use.

Within minutes of leaving that doctor’s office a poem started swirling in Caroline’s head. She remembers watching her boots hit the snow-covered pavement, noticing how at once she felt both lighter and more rooted, as if she could feel herself as part of the earth and the air, as part of the world for the first time. She felt a truth that seemed to have been there all along: that she was going to spend a lot of her life writing & sharing the stories of her survival and recovery, advocating for those who are misunderstood and misdiagnosed, and connecting others with the resources appropriate for their own healing and transformation.  She wanted then, as she still does, to play a part in helping others feel less alone and less broken so that they too may get to the real work of their true lives.

After that important doctor’s visit, Caroline dove deeper into her writing and shared her poems out loud as often as she was invited. She found a home for herself writing poems for choreographers and film makers. Then in 2002 in Los Angeles, Caroline went to her first Slam Poetry event. Despite her initial disinterest in the competitive aspect of slam culture, she felt at home and was immediately compelled by the generous invitation to be unapologetically honest and alive. One after another poets shared their brave stories. They shouted, whispered, and sang their fears and their healing prayers on a stage inside a bar that seemed more like a temple. It was different than other poetry events in that the room seemed consciously gathered together for the purpose of active personal evolution and catharsis. Even though she felt anxious and depressed, had been crying all afternoon (and was wearing her pajamas), Caroline got onstage and read her poem  “Like a Crown.” She still remembers the glorious sound of those first snaps! Caroline started her slam journey there at Green in LA with Ratpack Slim & DJ Jedi, and then she moved up to Northern California where she could be regularly found on sticky barstools at The Starry Plough or the Oakland Metro. Still resistant to competing, she spent her first year coaching poets on their performance and vocal technique. And then with the help and love of friend Shane Koyczan, Caroline decided to compete for a spot at the big show and she won her way onto both the Berkeley and San Jose Teams in 2004 (ultimately choosing to compete with the San Jose Team so she could work with her buddy Mike McGee). She has been a slam team member and/or a coach somewhere every year since 2003, and she isn’t stopping anytime soon.

The study and practice of Spoken Word helped Caroline fully and publicly claim her voice & her history, and it continues to give her the skills and strength to stand in her truth. While she still honors medicine from Eastern, Western & First Nation traditions, and though she often pursues poetry opportunities outside of the slam world, Caroline will always consider Slam Poetry to be one of her most precious tools for survival and health. She is committed to creating safe and exciting spaces in which anyone- regardless of literary skill, performance experience, personal history, belief system or politic– can bask in the liberating and healing gifts of Spoken Word.

Currently Caroline heads the country’s premier academic program for Slam Poetry & Spoken Word at Berklee College of Music. Caroline draws as much from Henry Rollins as she does from Shakespeare; she is as equally identified with Buddhism & contemporary neurobiology as she is with punk rock & her personal history of recovery and rebellion. The work she makes reflects this unique merging of the sacred & the scholarly with the irreverent & profane.

In addition to her contribution at Berklee, she performs and teaches on film & TV, on college campuses, in women’s clinics,  juvenile detention centers, in the local bar and at the fancy performance hall, and at healing arts destinations & theatrical venues worldwide.

Caroline Harvey-logo

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