Standing Inside the Poem: Felicia Webster’s Performance Poetry as Leading by Example
By Phillip Howells
“I want you to repeat after me. Stand up. Stand tall. Make a change. Make a change.” Taking the stage at her TEDx speaking engagement, Felicia Webster wastes no time calling her audience to participate in her presentation. Call and response grips the attention of the audience by making them a part of the performance. By breaking the assumed barriers between the speaker and the audience, Webster blurs the lines of performance. Webster goes on to deliver a performance more akin to something one would expect to see at a poetry slam than at a TED speaking engagement. And yet, the result feels natural to the audience. As a poet, Webster is able to turn her vocal talents and cultural interests into a voice that is inspiring to others while still being uniquely her own. As an African American poet, her voice provides an account of the strengths and struggles of Spoken Word poetry in Nebraska.
“Stand up,” Webster asks her audience to repeat. “Make a change,” she makes them say. By making the audience itself perform the punchline of her speech, she shifts the perspective of the interaction. Instead of a listener, the audience member becomes a speaker, and the words they speak must take on a unique significance for each individual present. As Webster relays a series of narratives about several formative stages in her life, she speaks in a tone tipped with an edge of poetic weight and her presence invites her listeners to engage her conceits via multiple sensory fronts. She describes her introduction to books and reading as a moment of discovery facilitated by her fourth grade teacher. Speaking with the heavy breath and bright eyes of a person in anticipation of some great realization, she brings the audience into her reverie, into that childhood moment in all its mystery.
The embodied nature and gripping immediacy of Webster’s presence invoke an aura of personality that affects the viewer. Webster appears to her audience as a storyteller, but as is common among great storytellers, her technique (tone, cadence, body language) does more than the story to capture our attention. Webster refers to this element of performance as “spirit.” Every time she recites a poem in a public space, she relies on this sense of spirit to pull her through the experience. What looks to be a well-polished performance takes on an improvisational flare that sparks out in rhythmic patterns, melodies, and vocal tricks that do more than just words can to translate embodied expressions.
Webster doesn’t just distill memories to repeat for an audience. In her TEDx talk, she does not perform her love of hip hop by performing hip hop. She does more than that. She uses her voice to give her audience a glimpse of the mental state from which she pulled her inspiration. She pantomimes the circular shape of a cipher on the street practicing their rhyming, and she beatboxes to display her acumen, but it is the sum total of her presence that communicates the gravity of a 12-year-old girl’s memory of busting out rhymes with the boys.
The power of Spoken Word poetry comes from the versatility of human expression. Webster actively seeks to imbue every performance with her own spirit because the performance is a moment in time more than it is a collection of words. The performance gains its power to enact change by impressing itself on the audience beyond just the words themselves. On her website, Webster states that “Spoken Word is a uniquely African American art form, which has for decades been a part of the historic oral tradition of African peoples.” With every performance, Webster acknowledges the ancient traditions of art that have guided her to her own voice. She acknowledges the artistic technology of hip hop for inspiring her continuing love of rhythm and bold expression; she acknowledges that the stories of others can operate as “platforms of healing” when we go through similar struggles; she even acknowledges the process of her own learning as a continuum which builds upon itself over time. She shows that the activism of a 14-year-old girl sounds different from that of a 45-year-old woman, but that each sound bears a different message.
Webster’s works often revolve around the theme of teaching, both of self and others. In a poem called “Let it Go,” she dwells on the difficult task of moving on. On one hand, she mentions youthful lust and the pain of a broken relationship, and on the other she brings up more traditionally adult troubles like alcohol abuse and sex addiction, but she doesn’t separate the experiences. Instead she zeroes in on pain, saying “all we have to do is let it go and recognize that there’s hurt and not joy, ‘cause they can’t coexist in the same space and time.” As she slowly and methodically reminds her audience of the various troubles they are all burdened by in their inner lives, she changes her voice to gesture toward the feeling of being bogged down by unnecessary catastrophizing and unmetered worry. Her voice begins to halt and distort as she lists possible problems, but then she moves beyond the list to a solution which comes out as a whispered refrain to “let it go… let it go….” Her poem does not ignore or claim to undo bad feelings, but rather it gives the audience license to change how they think about the interpretation of feelings. Beyond the logical appeal that a person should not develop a debilitating obsession with their hardships, Webster illustrates a healthy reaction by smoothing out her presence, using soft circular hand motions and a loose breathy intonation.
By portraying change through performance, Webster demonstrates the power of suggestion. Instead of working solely through the written word, analyzing and picking apart her own internal state, she moves herself into a communal space. She brings her struggles to her audience and picks theirs up into the tension of the room. Then, as the audience watches, the performance changes; it shifts from the threatening staccato of the problems to the room-filling smoothness of letting it all go and allowing oneself to float with the melody of the performance. Rather than a text that the audience must interpret within their own minds, the performance becomes more like a conversation as the speaker interpolates the tenor of the room into the artwork.
But the real beauty of Webster’s communal techniques lies in the fact that her poems still draw the listener into her perspective. Webster’s poetry does not universalize specific issues. Instead, her words express love and empowerment to show that survival requires both personal discipline and communal help. We can see in “Let it Go” and her TEDx talk that Webster does not downplay her own personality in her art. Rather, she relies on her experiences to explore what gets her into trouble and what gets her out of it. When she describes her early education in Hip Hop circles, she shows the audience what it looks when a person achieves a victory and she gives them a chance to remember how it feels. By embodying her own life on the stage, she performs a catharsis, allowing the audience to feel her emotions by proxy.
Of course, performance is always an aspect of poetry, but the concept of Slam Poetry has almost become a genre unto itself. A poetry slam is an event at which poets take to the stage to read Spoken Word poems which are most often characterized as rhythmic and emotionally charged, and compete to see whose words can most affect the audience. However, the prevalence of poetry slams as a reading format among professional poets has led to standardization rather than diversification. Slam poems have come to be stereotyped as primarily declarative, staccato, and persuasive. As young poets mature and begin performing their own writing, the slam scene itself may directly influence their style as form in poetry can be particularly difficult to master and make one’s own. Webster’s poetry shows that mastery of form in Spoken Word is possible and that tailoring one’s form to fit one’s personal identity can only help an audience to internalize an artist’s words.
Webster’s work suggests to young artists the importance of a sense of self. Rather than utilizing the more standard affectations of slam poetry like many other practitioners, Webster actively seeks to bring a sound to her work that is all her own. She embraces her love of reading, hip hop, and beatboxing and weaves her personality into her poetry as a medium through which to touch her listeners and not just a model from which to draw. The communal nature of Webster’s voice bestows an immediacy upon her work that can shore up the audience with the strength of her optimism and pragmatism. As she goes out into the world to tell her audiences not to give up and to continue working at improving themselves, she calls out her place in the midst of the audience as a member of that community, saying “I am standing because someone paved the way for me. I am standing because we stand.”