In-Verse: An Evening of Poetry and Spoken Word
If you thought we weren’t going to get as many artists up on our new stage as we possibly can, you underestimate our enthusiasm. So, true to form, this past Thursday MODA was excited to host a spoken word night with Nate Mask and Ryan J, two award-winning, Atlanta-based spoken word poets who make up the touring duo Nobody Likes Us, But We’re Here Anyway.
When the two aren’t featuring at slams and open mics, they host their own; this was one of those special nights. Their method is infectiously honest, kind, and fun. It’s no wonder they made their name as a duo—their dynamic is a delight to watch, their onstage bits flowing seamlessly into exciting and often poignant pieces that highlight each of their strengths as performers and personalities.
That’s why Thursday night saw a crowd of excited patrons pouring into MODA as the sun went down, all there to see Nate and Ryan J riff, perform, and facilitate an open mic—and, of course, to see the two featured poets chosen by the duo to perform their own sets.
With poets and poetry lovers mingling over beverages provided by Atlanta’s own Second Self Beer Co, the stage set, and the open mic sign-up sheet floating around the room, we were ready to begin. Nobody Likes Us took the stage, introduced themselves, warmed the room up; they set the ball rolling with a piece about Mario Kart and drunk driving, making sure the audience was prepared for anything that evening.
“Can you help us solve a stalemate?” Ryan asked us before beginning the open mic portion of the show. “What part of the snap makes the sound?”
About half the room voted for thumb touching forefinger, about half said middle finger touching palm. Everyone agreed when Nate chimed in that it doesn’t really matter, so long as everyone knows to snap for poets at a spoken word show. Even this playful, unexpected segway to audience participation colored the tone of the night, making sure the crowd (and the poets) were comfortable, open-minded, and ready to listen and participate.
Ryan left us with one last word of advice before the first performers took stage: “Whatever energy you give to them you’ll get back tenfold.”
Whatever energy you give to them you’ll get back tenfold.
The open mic, like most, featured a smattering of first-timers and veterans, hobbyists and published poets. The topic matter was even more diverse: hardship, disaster, gentrification, mental illness, puzzles, seeds, growth, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” all came up over the course of the show.
The crowd followed Ryan’s advice, snapping and clapping and cheering on performers who seemed a little nervous or who had a particularly touching line. A gasp or two when Hamilton from Twin Soul Poets, another Atlanta-based spoken word duo, asked us “Have you ever noticed how a galaxy looks exactly like a hurricane?” in his piece on disasters. An outpouring of applause for a first-time performer reading a personal piece to the crowd. Cheers for every new poet to take the stage. It was, above all else, a night of support, camaraderie, and a shared love for poetry.
Have you ever noticed how a galaxy looks exactly like a hurricane?
As the open mic portion of the night wound down, anticipation only grew: the featured poets’ sets were still to come. In an interlude of sorts, as a way to transition from the open mic to the featured sets, Nate performed a solo piece about lost keys and anxiety, another poem that played with and subverted audience expectations and got the crowd ready for the work of two of his and Ryan’s favorite performers: Erin C and Theresa Davis.
Erin C took the stage first, books in hand and a look on her face that said, “I know what I’m about to do.” A writer, an English teacher, and an award-winning slam poet, with each piece Erin gave the audience a glimpse into her life as a black woman, a Miami native, and an Atlanta educator. Even as each articulate, considered line hit us with a hard-to-swallow realization or new perspective to consider, each line break in turn left us on the edge of our seats for more.
Her first piece, “The Goddess Explains Why Hurricanes Don’t Have Black Names,” draws both on her life in Miami and on her experience as a black woman in America. A fierce opener, “The Goddess” addresses—no, challenges—racism in America with the help of the ocean, personified. Why are hurricanes never given black names when they all start in African seas? Erin asks. “There is no disaster more natural than us,” after all, and besides—”Can’t the ocean be so blue it’s black?”
She follows this up with “Heba,” a poem inspired by her time in the classroom. “Heba” explores how a conversation about school shootings (a devastating norm in today’s America) turned to a display of Islamophobia and dangerous stereotyping, how terrorism has many masks and one of them is what she dubs ‘linguistic terrorism’.
The tough subject matter kept coming throughout her set; Erin didn’t want the audience to feel comfortable or complacent, instead asking for thought and consideration and perspective. Her next piece, “The White Woman Who Asked If She Could Touch My Hair,” was issued as a challenge to white people who don’t realize why their fascination with and exoticization of black hair is othering and harmful. She makes the listener really consider her words, really asks them to evaluate their reaction to the piece with its powerful closing: “The question is can you handle it touching you?”
Her next two pieces went hand in hand, both touching on the difficult topic of sexual assault. The first, “Pied Piper,” considers R Kelly, the self-named Pied Piper of R&B, and the sexual assault allegations against him. Erin alludes to the irony of the name first, which is inevitable, all things considered. (In case you’re unfamiliar with the original tale of the Pied Piper, whose title Kelly adopted over a decade ago, the Pied Piper of Hamelin is a German folk story of a man who uses his magical pipe to lure rats from a town and, when he is refused his pay by the townspeople, uses his pipe to lure away their children, too.) She insists that “you can not listen [to R Kelly] and weep” for his victims, pointing to the need to consider the artist behind the art in cases like this. While all of her work was culturally relevant, this one felt particularly topical in light of Kelly’s recent arrest on two separate federal indictments for child sex crimes.
“Pied Piper” was closely followed by another piece addressing rape culture, this time honing in on Bill Cosby, the beloved comedian and TV dad who last year was convicted and imprisoned for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004. “It’s not my fault you don’t like the taste of me swallowing your will,” Erin fires early on. The real kicker comes later, though, when she viciously indicts the man for his actions while calling back to his former fame: “Clara’s still got her gag reflux and an unconscious body never has one.”
Erin closed her set with “Rock,” another piece that tackles racism while celebrating the strength and beauty of the marginalized. “Rock” centers on and builds off of the phrase “black girls rock”—a phrase most known in the context of the cultural movement known by the same name and its annual festival and awards ceremony held in celebration of women and girls of color. The piece argues that it’s important to keep the focus, in this case, on black girls, rather than generalizing and opting instead for an “all girls rock” movement. Why? Because it is wrong that “[her] beauty cannot be relevant unless it’s held relative to [theirs].” The piece is full to bursting with powerful rally cries to black girls: “black girls flint and spark,” for one, and “Beyonce trumps Daenerys because we been dragon riders,” for another. Erin finished with a question that stunned the crowd into silence and then into applause: “Were it not for black girls’ stone, how else would you expect white girls to echo?”
Can’t the ocean be so blue it’s black?
The second feature was a rockstar of the Atlanta poetry scene: Theresa Davis. Another English teacher, coincidentally, and another black woman whose work addresses hard-hitting topics of race and gender as well as more personal themes of sexuality and motherhood, among so many others. The host of numerous regular open mics and the recipient of her fair share of honors, Theresa is a force to behold onstage, her friendly, conversational stage banter transitioning, as though at the flip of a switch, to poignant, gorgeous spoken word that pulls you in and won’t let go.
When she isn’t in the classroom, hosting one of her open mics (Java Speaks, held at Ammazza Pizzeria on Sunday nights and The Xchange Open Mic, held at ArtsXchange the second Friday of each month) or writing her next book, Theresa works to help her community by teaching poetry workshops. Her first few poems at MODA were new pieces written in recent workshops like these. The first, a piece written the night before which she called a superhero origin story, celebrated blackness as a superpower—”There is no costume colorful enough to cover up all this black.” The second, written in June, was “Hustle,” a how-to survival guide about poverty.
After warming us up with these fresh pieces, Theresa brought out her first book, After This We Go Dark. From this collection she pulled out “This is for my Daughters,” a piece about all the male poets who try to date her daughter. “Let him know that your mother is a poet,” she tells her daughter in this piece, “that you are her muse.” And later: “ Let him know that I love you like a combined 23 hours of natural child birth and no man will ever love you like that.” Snaps to that.
Her next piece was the title poem of her second book, Drowned: A Mermaid’s Manifesto, which made the Books All Georgians Should Read list in 2017. “Manifesto” explores how as a woman, a black woman, and a mother, society is constantly trying to drown her—and how “I stay on top of it…and do not drown.”
“The Hypocrisy Suite Movement #2” came next, a piece about adultery and hypocrisy, religion and sexuality, and how these concepts all mingled early in her life. “You will lecture me about temptation,” she says of her adulterous role models; “you will remind me about Eve.” Her matter-of-fact delivery here stunned the crowd, drawing the breath from shocked lungs and leaving us hanging onto each word.
It may not be June anymore, but for a lesbian, Theresa reminds us, it’s Pride all year long. So her closing poem honed in on sexuality where her others only alluded to it. And where “The Hypocrisy Suite” colors sexuality in a harsh light, soured by its negative context, “Fabular” is a sublime celebration of love between woman.
She began “Fabular” by explaining the definition of the word: it’s used to describe a story told exaggerated, in the form of a fable. The poem does just this: it takes a simple moment, two women meeting, and turns it into something magical, something breathtaking and heartstopping and lifechanging—as, after all, it sometimes can be. The repetition and hyperfixation on the littlest details of this proposed meeting intensified it until it was like something out of a dream, an ancient text, a prophecy. Theresa finished her reading with tears in her eyes, and she was certainly not the only one.
Let him know that your mother is a poet—that you are her muse.
After Theresa rejoined the crowd, Ryan took the stage for one last poem: one about knee pain and healing, a pair to Nate’s opener about lost keys to close the show. And with that, the night wrapped. Another beautiful evening of poetry and art on the MODA stage and, hopefully, just one of many to come.
Nobody Likes Us, But We’re Here Anyway have performed in over 45 cities from coast to coast. In 2018, Ryan and Nate were members of the National Poetry Slam Group Piece Champion Art Amok Slam Team, and both are members of the Art Amok and Java Slam teams. They perform weekly at the Java Speaks open mic, and monthly at the Arts Xchange.
Ryan J is a poet, a performer, a Cave Canem Fellow, and the 2018 Art Amok Slam Champion. He is the founder of Homegrown Poetry, a spoken word outlet based in Atlanta. Find out more about him and his work @gohomeryan on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, or on his website, www.gohomeryan.com.
Nate Mask is an award-winning poet, storyteller, and spoken word artist based out of Atlanta, Georgia. He is a National Poetry Slam Group Piece champion, a Moth Story Slam winner, and a multiple-time member of both the Java Monkey and Art Amok Slam Teams. Find him @n8maskpoetry on Instagram, on Facebook at Nate Mask Poetry, or on his website, www.natemask.com.
Erin “C” Claridy is a writer, educator, and performance poet. She is a two-time Women of the World National Poetry Slam (2014, 2018) final stage performer and most recently performed at TEDX-Atlanta (2019). In 2017, Erin released her first book of poetry, Darla-Billy Died. Find more about Erin @erincpoetry on Instagram and Twitter.
Theresa Davis is a poet, an artist, a performer, and an educator. She is one of Atlanta’s best known performance poets and has received recognition and honors from a number of competitions nationwide, including the title of Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion. In 2012, she was named Georgia Tech’s McEver Chair in Poetry, and in recognition of her years of activism on behalf of Atlanta’s youth, she was honored by the City of Atlanta with a proclamation, declaring May 22, “Theresa Davis Day in Atlanta”. She has 7 self-published collections of poems, and in May 2013, her first full collection of poems entitled “After This We Go Dark” was published by Sibling Rivalry Press. Her second collection of poetry, "Drowned: A Mermaid's Manifesto," was released in September 2016 by Sibling Rivalry Press and was chosen for the 2017 list of All Books Georgians Should Read. She is currently writing a new book, set to release in 2020. You can find her @shepiratepoet on Instagram or on her website, rockstarpoet.wixsite.com/theresadavis.