‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’: Brown Noise Examines the Unstructured Nature of the Spoken Word

On Thursday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m., people congregated in the Motley for the open-mic event, Brown Noise. The Motley's warm colors, homey brick walls, and wooden beamed ceilings makes one feel that they are in someone’s home rather than on a college campus. That night, the feeling of homeliness was a bit stronger as the lights on the stage and the close gathering of people made us feel connected to one another.

Brown Noise is a series of open mics aiming to create a safe space for POC performers to share their work. The open-mic event is presented by Motormouth, the Claremont College’s slam poetry organization for young artists to further develop their craft, which puts on events once a month at the Motley. 

Elliamani Ismail’s SC '18 voice was warm in the same way. As the co-founder of Brown Noise, she welcomed us to the event, invited those who had never been to spoken word before to interact with the audience, and made me – someone who had never been to a spoken word event before – feel welcomed and embraced. 

I was able to speak to Ismail, who co-founded the group with friend Avery Jonas PO '19, over the phone after the event. Her speech was similar to her poetry: eloquent, decisive, and sharp.

Ismail explained that since Brown Noise's first event last October, the event had become very well-established. In fact, Ismail explained that the first Brown Noise event last October was so packed there were “random people filling out the space, and they were just standing outside the door.” Since then, Motormouth has garnered national attention, and receives several requests for poets to share their work in other venues.

She referred to a quotation by Audre Lorde that began by saying that “poetry is not a luxury.” Western academia instills the belief that poetry is flowery, emotional, and unstructured. According to Lorde, poetry’s structure is the lack of academic structure that some people, often POC, don’t have access to. This in itself creates a feeling that defines spoken word and poetry. What makes up this feeling? It is concepts, not words – and emotion, not work. 

After Ismail's introduction, we heard about the charity the event was for. Brown Noise Presents: Black Action, A POC Open Mic served as a fundraiser for the Garifunia people of Honduras. The Garifunia are indigenous black populations of Central America who have been violently persecuted, imprisoned, and murdered by their government as their lands are seized. Proceeds go to ORFENAH, one of the leading organizations of the Garifuna liberation fight.

Poetry topics included experiences as a black women, queer intimacy, and heartbreak. Ismail explained that although a large part of poetry is education, at the end of the day, it is a personal outlet.

“It’s better when the poet can hear they are resonating in terms of going through the same thing and feeling the same thing, versus hearing their word structure, rhythm, or another technicality,” she said. This response is what makes the difference: feeling that “at the end of the day, you’re not alone because that’s what’s going to soothe you.”

For this reason, Ismail focuses on “black womanism” and “writing black woman like [herself] into existence.” 

Poetry is not just hearing, she said. It is “hearing, seeing, and reverberating. Even if you don’t want to.”

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