Poetics: 5 Questions for Performers Javon Johnson & Conney Williams

On Nov. 21, The 5Cs Out Loud, a writing club, presented Poetics, a free spoken word poetry event open to all in the Claremont community. Poetics featured artists Conney Williams, Artistic Director at non-profit gallery The World Stage and Coordinator of Anansi Writers’ Workshop in L.A., and Javon Johnson, who has collaborated with HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” and BET’s “Lyric Café.”

“We want to showcase spoken word as a legitimate art form that has a place in academia. Overall we want to spread awareness that these types of events are out there, that these types of people are out there, and that this culture is out there,” said Gabbi Kelenyi PO ’13, a founder of 5Cs Out Loud.

Kelenyi hopes to bring in different types of artists, including novelists or short story writers, to do readings in the future. “Our mission is to provide a safe space for people of all levels who are interested in written creative expression of any kind, and a place to find feedback, honest criticism, places to share, and events like this to be a part of,” she said.

The 5Cs Out Loud is also planning to put on the workshop series, April Out Loud, in the spring. Kelenyi states that one of her goals for The 5Cs Out Loud is “bringing our passion to the greater student body, almost tricking them into doing some creative writing with these workshops… It’s tough to get people there, but once they are, they’re like, ‘Oh wow, I actually wrote this and it’s actually pretty good.’ ”

Williams was the first to perform and shared poems about sex, black culture, and Hurricane Katrina. Johnson followed and shared a diverse set of poems with subjects ranging from Justin Beiber, to his father, to one titled “Ten reasons women are like religion, they both tell me I’m going to hell.” After the performances, Williams and Johnson held a Q&A with the audience.

Q: How did you come to be a performance poet?

Johnson: I started writing poetry in high school, the way I think most young boys started writing prior to Def Jam… which was for some young girl in high school. That’s the real story. She was like, ‘Oh Javon, I heard you write poetry.’ And at that point I didn’t write poetry… She was like, ‘That’s so sexy that you write poetry,’ and I was like, ‘Crazy ‘cause I write poetry.’ [Laughter] And so I wrote her a poem and that’s literally how I got started doing it…

Williams: I started writing when I was very, very young… When I started working in radio, poetry was what I did. This was in the seventies, so I started writing, doing my poetry, and then rap came along; it was sort of like what we did. Then when I came to L.A… If you ever were there at the Poet’s World Stage when it was first going on, it was just, the level of poetry was ridiculous. It was unbelievable. That’s how I got started, just writing and wanting people to hear what I was talking about.

Q: What is your critique of spoken word as a genre?

Williams: I have plenty… my problems with spoken word poetry are the same that I have for traditional poetry, and I think that they should be judged on the same level. The only problem I have with spoken word right now, I have a problem with a lot of people who are involved in doing it that don’t read other poets… I really believe, you don’t have to copy people, but you need to read other poets. You need to know about people who came before you… I think people are too anxious to get on a damn microphone, and not really work at their craft.

Johnson: It’s hard to say spoken word as a genre, only because so many things exist under that rubric, to speak of it in context, as somehow versus traditional poetry… Spoken word predates the written text. What we do now, this is nothing new. But I completely agree that a lot of poets are more interested in hearing themselves. I read an amazing amount and that’s always been my biggest piece of advice to young writers… Read. Anything. A lot. Of everything… I do think you need to copy… I started out sounding like other poets… What’s wrong is if you stop there. It’s a great place to start but it’s a terrible place to stop…

Q: What is the difference between spoken word and rap?

Johnson: There’s not a huge difference. Rap is literally spoken word to a beat. Spoken word has often added music to it.

Williams: There really is no difference…It’s actually going back to the same rhythm and beat that blacks did…it’s all innate.

Q: In this day and age, how can we also galvanize people with spoken word?

Williams: You don’t think people were apathetic back then, afraid to say stuff, because they might die if they say it? They faced the same challenges you face today… maybe different on certain levels… You will be able to galvanize and affect people if you are willing to be honest. I just think a lot of times people bullshit in what they talk about… When I was in high school in the South, we didn’t have a lot of voices that we see today. I’m excited to see the level of writing, the level of expression that I see today… I’m excited to see you guys having workshop; it’s a phenomenon that’s going around the world; it’s on Youtube, they’ve got venues around the world.

Johnson: Poetry is hugely popular, part of it is entertainment, but it charges people. You can’t deny some of the charges that you feel when you walk into a good spoken word venue. You just feel something. I don’t think people are apathetic. I think we like to remember history in these weird ways; we reconstruct history very weirdly. People are like… ‘How do we get it to how it was like back then?’… As if everybody in the sixties was political. There was a lot of people that were like, ‘I’m cool… I’m gonna just chill up at the house, listen to some radio’ [Laughter]… Like now, there are lots of political people now, see Occupy Wall Street, see Occupy L.A… People are just as political now as they were then. We found new ways, because a lot of the things we did in the sixties won’t work now… Some of the stuff I’ve seen with Twitter has been amazing… some of the stuff I’ve seen with Facebook, it’s about finding new ways.

Q: Do you feel like an activist?

Williams: I definitely feel like an activist… that’s the type of poet I aspire to be, because those were the types of poets who inspired me… that’s what we do at The World Stage to affect our community. It’s being activist in the sense of getting the word out; I express myself talking about things that have been happening… We see a lot of the poets saying things no one else is willing to say. I think that that’s very important…

Johnson: … It was already hammered into us that we were always artists, academics, and activists. For me, I don’t see the separation in the three… I’m not saying one performance can change the world, but I’m saying one performance can spark the kinds of dialogue that can lead to material change. In that respect, my artistry should spark the kinds of dialogue that lead to change…

For those interested in becoming more involved in the literary scene, check out The 5Cs Out Loud page at http://www.facebook.com/groups/111997145570413/.

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