A single microphone in a dimmed room, a quiet buzz in the air. Not much of a spotlight. I step up, take a breath, and suddenly there is music— an impromptu symphony of nothing but my voice reading poetry and the echoing sound of the audience snapping their fingers to each line that resonates with them. A push and pull of meaning.
It feels weird to quote myself, but that was a paragraph from one of my college essays where I discussed what spoken word poetry means to me. I still find it difficult to articulate what the experience is like to someone not familiar with the genre.
Up till last year, I had not yet encountered any venues or showcases for spoken word where I live. That all changed when I bumped into someone talking about a monthly showcase in Seoul—not in person, but in the comment section of a Facebook group for Asians in the creative industry (Asian Creative Network, for anyone interested). I was not used to messaging strangers out of the blue, but the prospect of finding such a community was so enticing that I swallowed my doubts and sent her a text.
And I am so glad I did. Wordsmiths is “a community that supports art and expression”, and they host a spoken word event on the second Sunday of each month. Having received a warm welcome into the group by the woman I messaged, I made a shy introduction to some of the poets during their January showcase. I had just created this blog. I had just become legal to drink. I had just entered a new year. My inner energy was begging for something new, to place myself somewhere foreign and exciting.
Wordsmiths was something I never imagined I would find here. I was still home—I was still in Seoul—but it didn’t feel like it. It was strange to think that something like this had been unfolding right in the center of the city, and that I had been blind to it all along. All I had to do was search, and here it was. The performances I watched were a mix of soft and scarlet, some lengthy, verbose, and romantic, some cool and cutting. Most of all, it was a breath of fresh air to be in a group of like-minded people who always put creative expression, sensitivity, and openness at the forefront of their everyday decisions.
After two months of attending the event, the poets I got to know pushed for me to read my own writing. (“It’s not breathing there!” one of them told me, when I said my poetry stayed on my computer.) It was still a scary idea, but compounded with the support of my close friends who promised to come with me and watch if I read, I signed up to read at the March event.
The event is hosted at Southside Parlor, a bar near Noksapyeong station in Itaewon. The location definitely has a vibe to it, with friendly staff, great music, and a selection of food and drinks, ranging from cocktails to lemonade. They also have a special drink menu for Wordsmiths. The atmosphere is at once vibrant and intimate as poets and audience members mingle before the event.
My friends and I got there a little early and ordered their tacos (generously topped with cilantro) and chips with smoked queso. Always delicious.
As the sun set, the hosts began setting up for the event, and I grew more and more nervous despite everyone’s words of encouragement. The event usually starts 15~30 minutes late, and there was a general period of socialization and preparation before the host stepped up to the mic.
I eventually read two poems, one of which I had performed before and is available for reading on this blog (titled Octopus, linked here.) The other will not be uploaded here, but carried much heavier emotions. Both pieces were, while framed in different ways, a message of celebrating life itself and being proud of one’s existence. My heart was pounding when I first stepped up, but I soon fell into the rhythm of the words I’d pored over for hours. I think I should quote my college essay again:
It is liberating to pour my soul out onstage, enjoying a unique, intertwined dance between the audience’s energy and mine. But nothing is more meaningful than the moment when someone approaches you in tears after the show ends, telling you your words matter to them.
The performance itself was a blur, but I do remember what people said afterwards. A few audience members approached me and told me I had brought them to tears, which is always a surreal thing to hear. They encouraged me to keep reading until I leave for college. I had felt a little out of place during the January and February events, being a high schooler among a crowd of working adults, but once I performed, the feelings of inadequacy melted away. Yes; my relative youth did not discount my artistry.
After thanking a couple of people at Wordsmiths for bringing me into the community so wholeheartedly, my friend and I decided to stop by a nearby bar to say hi to another friend. (Well, technically, a teacher’s friend, but we have unusual relationships with our teachers.) She wanted to come watch my Wordsmiths performance but couldn’t because she was working at The Pocket.
The Pocket’s beautifully painted exterior can be found just a few minutes’ walk away from Southside Parlor, and was in fact created by the same group of people. They are focused on bringing sustainability to their business, recycling ingredients thrown away at Southside and using reusable bamboo or metal straws.
The Pocket is smaller than Southside and has a different atmosphere, fresher and closer-knit. My friend and I stayed to chat for a while, winding down to cap off an eventful night. It was strange; we’d been friends since we first entered high school, which had felt like a giant step into the unknown. And now, we were facing yet another unknown—even less known this time, and more daunting. But that night confirmed it somehow, as we looked back on the years and acknowledged our various transformations, trivial and significant (which poignantly mirrors some motifs in my poem, Octopus). We were ready, fingertips tingling in the chilly wind of the future.