Talkin’ loud and sayin’ something

For poets and writers, Reno offers up a lot of soapboxes

photo by Amy Beck

Naomi Grady adjusts the microphone, situates the music stand, and sits down on the stool. With a large rug beneath her feet and a spotlight shining on her face, she shares her words to a packed audience at Walden’s Coffeehouse.

“There was a time when I felt completely safe as a child … before the world began,” she says in one poem.

“The tiny dragon bird steals my voice so he can sing,” she says in another.

Her poems don’t rhyme, but they flow. Her voice doesn’t fluctuate in intensity, but you can tell she means what she says. She mostly looks down at her paper, yet still connects with the audience.

This is spoken word. You can do it alone or with a group. Move around or stand still. Act dramatic or relaxed. Make it rhythmic, like hip-hop, or sporadic, like a dramatic monologue.

There are no rules.

Though not as popular as, say, music or film, spoken word is still well-known. You could argue that it’s the biggest little art form, and it’s made its way into the biggest little city.

Speaks and valleys

There have long been open mics in Reno where poets, as well as musicians and comedians, perform. At Java Jungle on Mondays, at Hi Point Coffee on Fridays, and Walden’s Coffeehouse on Saturdays—to name a few.

Now several spoken word events have taken off in Reno.

One group that turned spoken word from an occasional occurrence at an open mic to a regular one was Spoken Views.

Started in 2006 by Tony Walker and Iain Watson, Spoken Views is a spoken word group in Reno comprised of 13 poets, ranging from ages 17 to 32. Part of the Holland Project, a non-profit whose mission is to make art accessible to the young community, Spoken Views hosts an all-ages open mic on the third Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m. at The Studio, above The Spy Shop on Virginia Street.

This open mic grew from a desire for a strictly poetry event in Reno. None existed at the time.

“We just wanted people to get up and express themselves and to have a platform to do so,” Watson says.

Spoken Views participates in other projects and events, as well. As a group, they have done poetry slams, short films, CDs, and much more. As individuals, they’ve performed in cities such as Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

At a recent show at Maytan Music Center, a couple of Spoken Views members take the stage. Emily Orellana, 17, the youngest member of the group, did a few poems. She uses hand gestures as she reads. She builds up with intensity for several lines and then brings it down in a quieter voice for a line or two.

In one poem, about a great date she went on, Orellana says, “And for a second God existed.” In another poem, written to a friend who ended up in the hospital after a pill overdose, she says, “You wear these proudly like you’re the hero of your own war … they can save your life, but they couldn’t save your soul.”

Orellana has won first place for Nevada at the Poetry Out Loud competition the last three years, and has ranked in the top nine nationally. Other Spoken Views members have won awards, as well.

Watson sees Reno turning into “one of those art cities,” and he likes how Spoken Views plays a role in that.

photo by Amy Beck

“We’re kind of like the voice of the community,” Watson says.

Ben Arnold, an English teacher at Wooster High School, has also impacted the spoken word scene in Reno. After seeing Spoken Views perform, he wanted to start his own thing. But he has a more specific target audience: high school students.

“They’re always complaining that no one listens to them,” Arnold says. “I want to get them to voice their opinions.”

To achieve this, Arnold started Be the Cause three years ago. It’s a poetry open mic/slam that takes place the first Saturday of every month at the Workshop at 836 (on Second Street) from 3-6 p.m.

Arnold also hosts Poets in the Rounds and Songwriters/Poets in the Rounds every month at Studio on Fourth, and a few times a year at the Knitting Factory. These events are targeted more toward college students, professors and writers, but still contribute to his main goal.

“I want to find the right people at the professional level to help college students,” Arnold says. ‘Then college helps high school. Then high school helps middle school.”

Living out loud

Spoken word in Reno still largely happens at open mics, house shows, and other events. Sam DiSalvo, a spoken word poet, hosts an event titled AMPS (Art, Music, Poetry Slam). DiSalvo, who is part of Wolfpack Radio, started this event after attending a Spoken Views open mic early last year.

“I thought that it was so interesting and powerful,” DiSalvo said.

DiSalvo makes sure spoken word is a large part of the show. She even performs her own poems at these annual events. She’s excited to see spoken word spread in Reno.

“It diversifies the city,” she says.

Matt McDowell, a local spoken word artist, shares DiSalvo’s excitement. McDowell thinks that since spoken word is relatively new in Reno, it has an advantage over places like San Francisco and Seattle. There isn’t a set genre or expectations here, he says.

“You don’t have to be a big name or even known at all,” says McDowell, who is also part of a local entertainment group called The Utility Players. The group does mostly comedy, but also dabbles in poetry and theater.

McDowell performed his poem “The Art of Love” at a recent house party in the living room of a three story house near University of Nevada, Reno.

“The art of love. Whether it’s the art of it or the start of it. You can fill your heart with it or be a part of it,” McDowell says in his poem.

After reading the poem, he received loud applause. Most people at the party had never experienced spoken word before.

“It’s dynamic,” John Man, a first-time listener, says. Man now wants to see more spoken word shows.

“It’s a way more interesting take on poetry,” Jonathan Shields, also a first timer, says.

But not everyone thinks that this is the best take on poetry. Ann Keniston, a UNR English professor who teaches poetry, tries to remind people that spoken word is just a subcategory of poetry, and that there’s more out there.

“I think spoken word poetry is somewhat limited,” Keniston said. She’s referring to its emotional range, often plain language, and the topics of social justice, politics, and social realism that many poets stick to.

Despite that, Keniston enjoys spoken word and wants to see it continue to spread.

“It’s a great thing for poetry in many ways because it has brought a greater audience to poetry,” Keniston says. “It seems more relevant to people and makes it seem not as scary. It’s fun, and it makes people see that they can write their own poetry.”