Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Interview with Spoken Word Artist Lauren Whitehead

Interview with Spoken Word Artist Lauren Whitehead

By Doug Holder

Spoken word artist Lauren Whitehead will be a featured guest for Somerville's acclaimed, youth-targeted Books of Hope Project on April 14th 7PM at the Main Branch of the Somerville Public Library (79 Highland Ave.) She will conduct a reading and a workshop that deals with performance poetry and the new generation of poets commanding the stage! This event will include an open mic,refreshments,is free, and open to the public.

Lauren Whitehead is a University of Michigan graduate and multi-time U-M U-Club Poetry Slam Champion. She is a founding member of Ann Arbor Wordworks, has been featured on National Public Radio and in HBO’s Brave New Voices documentary series, has worked as a mentor for young writers at Youthspeaks in San Francisco, and has toured the country as a member of Robert Redford’s Speak Green poetry squad.

I interviewed Ms. Whitehead--and here is what she had to say:

You are a performance poet--Doesn't every poet give a performance of sorts when she or he reads?

You might be right. There is a performance in all of it, right? The reading, the slam, the open mic, right? But I think the main difference between what you're describing -a poetry reading- and what I am (and other performance poets are) doing is that we are working for, banking on and in need of participation from our audience in order for the thing to work. And so, what is perhaps quiet/reserved/tame at a reading is intentionally stirred by the performance poet to create noise/community/excitement in the folks we are performing for. It's much more of a give and take, and it involves the body in a way that a podium, perhaps, doesn't always allow for.

What do you plan to tell the kids are the elements of a good poetry performance?

I will tell them that the best poems are honest poems, are poems where we can tell something is at stake, are the ones that are more confession than fact, the ones that are urgent, are waiting to be written and said and heard. I will tell them that reaching their best performance is really only possible if they reach toward their best and bravest writing.

We know a lot of poetry sounds good on the stage--but how about the page?

I think this is a dichotomy that some poetry god must have a ton of fun stirring up over and over. The truth is I think good performance poets are, at base, good poets and that means on the page, on the stage and everywhere in between. One of my Poet Mentors Jeff Kass says that poetry is about playing with sound. Some poets do that by the sound of the voices that in their heads, others need to say it out loud to really hear it. I fall into the latter category, but we're all poets just the same.

Can you tell us about the Youth Speaks program that you were involved with?

Youth Speaks is a literary arts organization in San Francisco that, in short, seeks to change the perception of youth by offering them the tools they can use to speak their own truth to power. So, we (and I say we because even though I'm not there, I'll never be gone) offer young people writing workshops and performance opportunities so that they might have a chance to say what they feel without being measured against a standard - we believe the standard is yourself and without being told you are wrong - in our workshops there are no wrong answers. I think the goal is a safe space for self expression in whatever form in comes in. And young folks want that. It's clear.

Youth Speaks also programs Brave New Voices, and international youth poetry festival that connects young people from all over the country who are interested in performance, poetry and community. It's really a beautiful place. see for yourself.

I know from experience that poetry can make changes in the lives of people, especially kids. Any anecdotes?

I have so many moments in my short life of young people -and old people come to think of it- who have found some part of their selves in a poem. On any given day at the YS office. I remember one kid, Dominic, who is now a student at UW Madison. He used to just come to my workshop because his friend was coming, and he would never write and when he did, he certainly wouldn't share. But the group was forgiving and patient and welcoming, really. So he came every Wednesday, or whatever, until one day, before the workshop started he said to me, "I think I wrote something last night off that prompt you gave us before, can I read it." And that initial share, that first sound, really transformed him. He believed he could say it now, he believed he had something to say, and it's really quite beautiful to see as it's happening.


  1. Anonymous1:47 PM

    WOW this is great! Please check out " If you can feel it, you can speak it" second Thursdays 9PM-1AM, Milk Way Jamaica Plain, MA.

  2. Great interview. We are a storytelling organization in Jamaica Plain - feel free to check out our biggest event yet, a story slam featuring 15 tellers and donations to our scholarships for high school students of Massachusetts! You can find out more info at our website -