“You’ll gain financial freedom.”
“Meet lifelong friends.”
“Develop a caffeine addiction.”
Of the many outcomes popular culture pronounces of the university experience, my favourite has always been the ominous prospect of “discovering what makes you you”. For the first few weeks as a fresher this hung over me like a shadow — suddenly there were no throwaway decisions. Every choice you made as a University Student™ was affirmatory, whether it’s which extracurriculars you devote your time to or which packaged ramen you pick up from Tesco on the way home from the library (the best people choose Indomie, FYI).
Within the psychological minefield that is university, performing poetry to a listening public is a medium of self-assertion not to be underestimated. At St Andrews this art form is chiefly facilitated by Inklight, the creative writing society responsible for monthly open mic nights. In my first semester, I’d lean on the sticky bar-top of Aikman’s, marvelling through the yellow flickering light at people of all ages, students or otherwise, who’d bare all via stanzas on love, loss, hopes and fears. Every piece offered something different. The content of the poem and its delivery worked together to create a truly unique mode of expression. Every performance was temporal — as a listener the awareness that you are experiencing something that can never exactly be repeated created an exhilarating atmosphere.
After a semester as an audience member, I finally took the leap to perform a couple poems of my own. They were short pieces, scrambled together in my bedroom during the early autumn as essay deadlines had begun to mount. Written in the early hours of the morning, the pieces weren’t the most literary, but I found great comfort in the writing process.
On the night of the open mic, however, I was terrified. On the surface I had no reason to be — the Inklight committee members ensured to create a friendly, welcoming environment. I think this fear can be attributed to the intimacy of reading aloud words you have pieced together. In a society growlingly self—contained — built on carefully curated social media profiles — it feels revealing to give listeners raw access to the way you think and feel.
Simultaneously, as we find ourselves at a time of frequent public discourse on facets of identity, you’d assume performing poems would be more popular now than ever. After all, poetry has for centuries been the calling card for those wishing to boldly declare themselves to the world. The acclaimed Romantic poet John Keats characterised the literary form through a desire to “echo back the voice of thine own tongue”. Within the canon of contemporary black poetry, figures such as Morgan Parker and Danez Smith (to name a few) use the form to reflexively express racial and social identity utilising a vibrant, stylised flair that is particularly potent when read aloud.
Furthermore, the importance of performing poems is blaring when we examine the mechanics of self-assertion itself. From inward reflection to outward declaration, few other media capture this movement from in to out like the process of performing work at an open mic. As an audience member I’d occasionally wince when hearing poems that felt so personal my passive act of hearing felt actively intrusive (pieces read aloud about everything from struggles with mental illness to vivid descriptions of a lost loved one spring to mind). Despite this, Inklight gladly welcomes “confessional” poetry, in a judgement — free, open space. Whether intentional or not, they recognise that regardless of any awkwardness, it is vital that performing poems emphasises the amplification of the individual to an outer community.
Reading at my first open mic, after the terror subsided a strange satisfaction took its place. I had performed pieces which captured my feelings of anger, frustration. These are emotions black women are trained to abstain from purging publicly, to prevent fulfilling venomous racial stereotypes. Yet with every word launched into the crowd, it felt like pressure gradually subsiding. Just the sound of your voice in an ambient room, everything outside falls away, including the perpetuations of wider society. You and what you have to say is being experienced on an individual level, and in an irreplicable way. By nature this disarms prejudice, fostering nuance instead.
The satisfaction of performing poetry is knowing that a part of who you are has been verbally affirmed. At St Andrews there are ample platforms for this feeling, whether it’s an Inklight event, a place on the newly established UniSlam team, or performing at the upcoming StAnza poetry festival. While there are many ways to “discover what makes you you” at university, few methods of self — assertion are as cathartic as performing poems to a crowd. You don’t have to be a literature lover or a master orator — the freeing experience of expressing yourself impacts all the same.