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The Scarlet & Black

Poet brings passion and art to Bob’s

Jumi Bello ’13 is a poet, spoken word artist and regular at Bob’s Open Mic Night. She has performed in many other venues on campus and published a book of poetry through Grinnell College Press last year. Bello speaks about her why spoken word is valuable to her, how it can be valuable to others and what it is like to perform in front of a crowd at Bob’s.

Tell us a bit about your performance as an open mic artist.
So I am a poet, I write poetry and perform it and many people call it spoken word. I identify as a spoken word artist. I don’t see myself as a slam poet artist. There is a big difference between those two terms. A lot of people think slam poetry and spoken word [are] the same thing and they’re not just because of the intentions behind them. Slam poetry is a professional field where you actually compete and you compete for points and for a title and spoken word has none of that. Spoken word is just poetry that’s being performed. So that’s the major difference between what I do and what a lot of the other open mic artists do. A lot of people bring in their guitars and all I need is a music stand to put my work on. Sometimes I’ll just memorize my work and I’ll do the performance sheet-less which in effect is a lot better because it just makes my work come a live on the stage and makes the performance that much more 3D as we like to say.  

Okay so when did you first begin to write poetry and start to perform spoken word?
I actually started writing poetry when my mom died. I was in seventh grade. And I had an English teacher. I was kind of really secretive about writing, I didn’t like my friends to know about it so I used to just doodle on my math homework sheets and all that other middle school bullshit that we used to do. And I left my sheets on my desk one day and my English teacher found them and she called me in and I thought I was in major trouble like detention ‘cause she was kind of the bitch of all our teachers that year but then she asked me how I felt about coming in during lunch once a week to go over the work that she found because she thought it was really good and she even kept one of the drawers of her cabinets made just for me where I could put my stuff in there and she could look over them and take them out during the week. So she was actually the first mentor I had in terms of writing and she really just gave me confidence to write but in terms of spoken word, when I was in eighth grade, another English teacher of mine—we were doing a poetry unit and she brought in this spoken word artist called Gayle Danley to perform for our grade and at that time, that was the first time I’d really heard the term spoken word, I was like what does this mean. But then the artist did a piece on her father for us and I was totally captivated by the emotion that she had on stage and I sat there thinking oh my god, I want to be that. I want to do that. I want to feel the way she feels because I feel that way all the time but I just don’t know how to do it without seeming like a freak and spoken word was kind of like an escape for me.

Tell us about the process of publishing your book, “I Woman Grl Luv Machine,” with Grinnell College Press last year.
I was really excited about [the possibility of publishing a book], I wrote an email to Press, super impulsive and then over winter break, I completely forgot about it, it just went straight out of my mind. And then I got the email from Press in February and they said “we really love your book, we really want to make it, you know, do you still want to do this?” and I was like “oh my god okay.” And I just started working [with] them and didn’t tell anybody really about my book at all. I was kind of afraid that if I did tell people and then I stopped doing the project, it would just be a huge disappointment and I’d be letting my friends down, and letting myself down. So I kept it super secretive and had a lot of fun writing different poetry and figuring out how to fit in there, working with my editors. … I was really, really scared to publish my book especially because I put so much work into it and it was so personal because spoken word always is personal, there’s just no way around it. There are poems in there that are about my family, about my friends, thoughts that I’ve never shared with anybody and it was really scary knowing that it was not just my friends who were going to read this book, people I didn’t know were going to read this book so it was just a lot of anxiety but my release party was great, a lot of people came. My books kept getting emptied out of the mailroom and so we had to keep filling them up so I was kind of incredulous thinking “who’s really, who’s reading my book, I’m not seeing anyone pick them up but I know they’re going somewhere.” And then people just started, you know. Over the last weeks of school just coming up to me, people I didn’t know, a lot of people I didn’t know saying, “I really loved your book, this poem really spoke to me, I loved this poem, this made me want to write.”

You formed Speak, a spoken word group, last year. Describe the impetus behind that decision.
Poetry is an extremely intimidating field. A lot of people think of it as something that needs to be professional, that you’ve been writing all your life or that you needed to get an A+ from your English teacher in order to be considered a credible writer. A lot of people say to me about Speak “oh I’ve never written before” like “I’m not really good” and I’m like “how do you know you’re not really good” and also the better question is what is good when it comes to poetry. ‘Cause poetry is not supposed to be you succeeded at poetry because you said “the roses are extremely red,” that’s not what poetry is about, it’s about expressing yourself and I think in high school, when we all went to high school, our English teachers kind of crushed that willingness to try new things in terms of writing out, that you need to do this a certain way, a certain style, there needs to be a certain rubric and now we see writing as something that needs to be evaluated, that has to be judged. And I want to say that’s not true. That’s not what it really is. Poetry is not a judgment. It’s an art. And art is an expression. And that’s where it ends. And at the same time doesn’t end. Because poetry is limitless in terms of what you’re talking about and whom you can talk about when you are writing this. So I created Speak because a lot of people who see my poetry or performances come up to me afterward and say “I loved your performance, you know I felt you, I was there, I wish I could do something like that” and then my response is “oh why can’t you?” and they say “oh well I don’t know how, where do I start.” So I created Speak with the intention of giving people opportunities to experiment with spoken word.

What is your creative process like?
Something that I want people to understand is that poetry is a constant process for me. Its really hard for me to get on that stage every time, no matter how many times people clap or scream my name and say they love me. I’m not really listening to that. You know, I’m preparing to do my poem. And performing poetry is an extremely physical process for me. When I’m reading my poetry, I’m going at different speeds, I’m enunciating certain words, I’m adding sound affects. Spoken word is almost like being a folio artist because you have all these sound effects in order to bring the poetry off the page. But because of that, because it’s such a physical process I go into this whole other level of mental state where I just can’t hear anyone and I become that poem. And it just takes the life out of me every single time I do it and when I’m done it’s almost as if I’m waking up and people don’t really see that. They just see me and the poem and they just clapping and “oh yeah yeahh”, not paying attention to what my face looks like which is “oouuughhhhh” and I’m shaking, I’m breathing really fast, my heart is pounding. It’s really a lot. And it takes a toll. I always kind of have to not be around people as soon as I finish so I kind of leave Bob’s for about five minutes. One time last fall, I did such a physically taxing poem that I ran into the bathroom and I threw up and then I just walked right back into Bob’s and I sat down and clapped for the next performer and I haven’t really told anyone that because I wasn’t ready to share that because I didn’t feel established enough as an artist, comfortable enough, or felt like I could control what was going on in order to talk about it but now I can and I understand what that is.

Which Open Mic artist has really impressed you? Who do you recommend as a fellow performer?
Good question, there are so many good people. I really have great love for Ethan Kenvarg [‘12]. He is a musician. His music is very emotionally compelling and his voice is emotionally compelling and his guitar is emotionally compelling. And he’s really, I think, modest about his playing abilities. There’s a small community who know about him, his friends and the people who go to Bob’s but I really want people beyond Deep South [JaMaLand] to know about him. He’s a science major so he’s not academically on the music scene—he’s very secretive about it. He’s just a really sweet guy, he’s really tall, and when he sits down with his guitar he captures the entire room, effortlessly. Please talk to him. 

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