“If you’re alive tonight, say ‘Yeah, Yeah!’” Carvens Lissaint bellowed from the stage. The audience crackled with energy— we were very much alive, and had been since Lissaint and the three other poets who make up The Strivers Row (Alysia Harris, GRD ’16, Zora Howard, ES ’14, and Joshua Bennett) walked in minutes earlier.
These poets, along with Miles Hodges, came together in 2010 to form what their website calls “a collective born from the collision of passion and page.” They’re award-winning competitors, prolific writers, and stars of HBO’s series Brave New Voices: as far as slam goes, they’re up there. When the spoken word poetry group performed at Yale last year, 200 leager listeners showed up. On the night of Sun., March 30, the blustery wind brought a smaller fan base to the United Church on the Green—but we were no less animated. “They’re legendary. They go in,” a friend in Teeth, Yale’s slam poetry group, whispered to me before the show.
The larger-than-life Harris was the first to take the micro- phone. “Tonight, we’re going to challenge the audience and the space,” she said, pointing up at the high ceiling of the chapel and the full congregation, squeezed into rows of pews.
“We just ask that you guys have an open mind, an open heart, and an open spirit.”
Strivers Row took on the challenge of performing in a church boldly, but not irreverently. No two performers’ rela- tionship with religion were the same. Bennett’s voice cracked as he looked out over the congregation. He hadn’t set foot in a church for a very long time. “This poem is called ‘The Skeptic,’” he began, and explained his crisis of faith and decision not to become a minister; reticently at first, then with defiant conviction.
Harris struggles to reconcile her conflicting identities as a sexual spiritual being. “Truth is, I’m not innocent, I’m just an abstinent fireplace that doesn’t wanna feel the fire kindle between her legs anymore,” she breathed. “I’m gonna take off the lipgloss and I’m gonna sleep naked, not trying to be sexy, just trying to be me.”
Lissaint, too, struggles with this idea. He practiced ab- stinence until marrying his wife, in a difficult but important display of devotion to his faith. “Let me find bliss in the mys- teries of your skin,” he crooned, lines written in a period of longing. “Safety in the cusp of your clavicle.”
Poetry is the one higher power they can all agree exists. “When you have art that comes out in just a pure form, that’s God’s work,” said Howard. “Writing is how I express myself and writing is how I live.” She once wrote herself out of a freshman year breakdown, titling each draft of the evolving
poem “Healing 1,” “Healing 2,” “Healing 3.” As she deliv- ered each wrenching line, all the breath was sucked from the audience. “I’m under these sheets, trying to stay bubble-gum tied at the seams,” she said, weaving the story of a girl and a boy and a depression. We remembered our breath and ex- haled, hard. The poem was named for the depression she con- quered: “Monster.”
The group’s responses to the Trayvon Martin shooting and trial were visceral, and seethed with the racial injustices of his case and cases like his. “Some people think we live in a post- racial society” Alysia prefaced one poem. “That is a lie.” A chorus of “Oh, shit,” rippled through the crowd as she hurled out one biting confrontation after another. “So what national- ity are you? Black. Oh, well, you’re still pretty.”
Later, Laissant delivered one last sobering reminder: “Bul- lets do know what color your skin is.” The audience urged him on as he spoke faster and faster, spit flying, still enunciating every cutting syllable. They loved him. And he loved them: as he closed the performance he leapt off the stage and ad- dressed us individually. “You are beautiful. You are beautiful. And you.” The eyes of the woman across the aisle glistened. I guess I cried a little too.
I feel my words aren’t enough to describe theirs. Howard said, “I speak here, you hear here. I heal here.” But as The Strivers Row spoke and I listened, wrapped in their poetry and the softly glowing belly of the church, I realized this: that night, maybe I’m the one who’d been healed.