Durham poets find a voice in spoken word

By Natasha Duarte
UNC Co-Editor
the Durham VOICE

On a Saturday night at Durham’s Night Life Comedy Club and Lounge, Timothy “Vespertine” Simpson stands in front of a crowd, spotlights illuminating his small frame.

Vespertine performs at Mansion 462 in Chapel Hill. (Photo by Colette Heiser)

He begins to perform a spoken word poem, delivering rhythmic lines in a booming, emotion filled voice.

I’m here to let you know that I’m blessed with in my womb/ a pregnancy that no female has ever experienced in their lifetime.

The 23-year-old Hillside High School graduate wrote this poem for a close friend who died of AIDS. The disease is portrayed as a metaphorical child.

Let my newborn know that I had to die for her blessings.

The poem becomes a letter from the patient to his family as the tension crescendos.

Love, your abandoned son.

The audience holds its breath, and then applauds. Simpson steps out of the spotlight and into the crowd, receiving hugs from his friends.

Simpson, who goes by the name Vespertine – a flower that blooms during the night – is no stranger to the microphone. But he still remembers the first time he performed more than a year ago.

“I made somebody cry,” he says of his first performance. “She got up to speak and broke down on stage. I had no choice but to give her a hug.”

Spoken word poetry combines elements of storytelling, music, traditional poetry and oral performance.

Nadiah Porter teaches spoken word at Durham Technical Community College. While Porter says the art form is still under the radar, spoken word poetry can be heard almost every weekend in Durham, whether at an open mic night, a poetry slam or a church service.

“We’re not up-and-coming,” Porter says. “We’re already here.”

Wanting to give her students and friends a supportive outlet for “spitting” their pieces, Porter organized an open mic at Durham Tech on July 19.

“The reason why I love spoken word is because it’s not traditional,” Porter says. “There’s no rules.

“When you start to put labels on every element of poetry, then you start to put yourself in a box.”

Wisdom Pharaoh letting it fly. (Staff photo by Jock Lauterer)

Poet Wisdom Pharaoh does have one rule of her own: Make it uplifting.

Even when Pharaoh, 33, writes about topics such as heartache and slavery, she likes to end her poems on a positive note of hope and perseverance.

“I want to feel good when I finish reading a poem,” she says.

Pharaoh, who loved writing as a child, says she knew she was meant to be a spoken word artist after her first performance 10 years ago.

Pharaoh recalls that her father came to her first open mic. “When I got back to the table, there was money on the table.” Her father told her people had been stopping by their table to leave money for Pharaoh.

“A light bulb went off,” she says. “I said, ‘I could do this for a living.’”

Since then, Pharaoh has been performing at clubs, conferences and schools.

She says middle schools are her favorite places to perform.

“There’s so much pressure in middle school these days,” she says. “There’s so much mess that’s being played on the radio.

“For me to come in, and I don’t have to curse. And they be so in awe, like, ‘I could do that.’”

Many Durham poetry groups, like Bull City Slam, focus on the competitive side of spoken word, holding “slams,” where poets compete for applause and judges award prizes based on the loudest applause.

But Porter, Simpson and Pharaoh say that’s not what they’re about.

“When you have to perform in front of judges, you’re in a box again,” Porter says. “It’s like the difference between hip-hop and jazz. I love hip-hop and I love jazz, but I’m just jazz.”

Simpson says that his poems are too personal for a competitive setting and that poetry is too subjective to be ranked. “I’m above judgment,” he says. “There’s no greater poem. They’re all equal.”

Poet Nadiah Porter confers with student Mike Reshaw at Porter's first open mic July 19. (Staff photo by Jock Lauterer)

“Poetry is not just on the mic,” Porter says. “Your gift is not for show. It’s for teaching. Teaching about life and the human experience.”

Porter, who is working toward a journalism degree from Durham Tech, hopes to bring more attention to spoken word both locally and nationally.

“I see in our future a show like ‘America’s Got Talent,’ but for spoken word,” she says.

All three poets have made a name for themselves as spoken word artists. Both Pharaoh and Simpson have released CDs of their work and perform at events across the country.

But although they’ve made careers out of their art, they say it’s still about the personal act of giving voice to their thoughts and emotions
“It’s a release,” Pharaoh says. “It’s what I was put on this earth to do.”

4 thoughts on “Durham poets find a voice in spoken word

  1. Jaki Shelton Green says:

    Awesome! To ALL of You:

    Continue to speak power into your truths…and “seize the mike at all times!”

    Much respect,
    Jaki Shelton Green

  2. Your ‘Words’ are a powerful,courageous testament to life! Keep up the good work all of you. I applaud you for making all aspects of life illustrative in “Spoken Word”….the truth. Vespertine’s Grandmother

  3. Regina Johnson says:

    I have performed with all 3 of you and you all continue to amaze me. I’ve listened to your stories, your poetry and it’s amazing how the three of you are in this article together. 3 of Gods beautiful broken children who have had 3 different struggles in life yet in the end he leads you all to the same path. God is amazing. May he continue to teach lifes lessons through you and may many children and Adults be blessed by your words.

    Lots and lots of love,
    Regina Johnson

  4. Love the flow and wisdom bestowed upon you. I am in the process of starting an internet radio broadcast and one evening will be devoted to open mic and spoken word performers. I would be honored to have you perform and would love to do an interview with you. Please contact me by email or website. Look forward to meeting you soon.

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