Arts theater review

Words take root in people

East Meets Words Open Mic Night features Asian-American spoken word performance

East Meets Words Open Mic Night 
Monthly, 7 – 10 p.m.
EMW Bookstore
934 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge

EMW (East Meets West) Bookstore is a cozy community space and gallery located in Central Square that has hosted one of the longest running Asian American open mic night series in the country. Called East Meets Words, it brings together a ton of creative and socially conscious minds every second Friday of the month to share what is primarily spoken word (the next one will be Friday, May 12!). Doors open at 7 p.m., and the event lasts until 11 p.m. at the latest. I went to check it out on Apr. 14 and enjoyed it. I definitely recommend going, especially if you find value in spoken word or thinking about racial/ethnic/gender/sexual identity.

When I walked into the venue, the first thing I noticed was how unexpectedly small it was. It wasn’t as much a bookstore as a long and narrow room filled with people sitting and chatting. Wacky biology-inspired art exhibits lined the walls of the room, adding to the warm and colorful atmosphere.

We quickly hushed as the hosts started up the open mic. The performers, cheeks red from nervousness, began to share their secrets and fears, weaving words that tackled enormous societal patterns and how they related to a single person. Topics like family, immigration, and being outcast came up over and over again. One young woman described herself as a contortionist, folding over and over into herself until she became impossibly small. Another denounced the stains of American history and warned that “there is nothing new about taking what is not to be owned.” Throughout the night, the crowd responded to the energy with cheers, exclamations, and snaps, so that it felt like an ongoing conversation between human beings instead of just a recitation of poems.

In between the poets are singers, rappers, ad libbers. Someone improvised a poem using words crowd-sourced from the audience: papaya, adrenaline, and croissant. He found himself comparing poetry to food: “Sometimes there’s too much pepper and you can’t keep it in your mouth any longer… where does a poem go if it can’t stay in your mouth any longer?” It often goes into a gaping void. But that night, the words took root in people at EMW Bookstore, even though they were sometimes hard to swallow.

As usual, the night culminated in a final performance by a guest artist. Tonight, the main feature was Pınar Yaşar, an Iraqi-Iranian diaspora Kurdish woman. She read to us poems about the history and violence that her family had been embroiled in, and that she had been severed from by growing up in the United States. It was a rare window into the mind of someone who could so clearly elucidate the contrast between life in America and the horrible realities of war in the Middle East. The room became unnaturally quiet as she described the usage of hashtags on Tumblr to warn others of dangerous war zones. We strained to process the unimaginable suffering of Kurdish communities.

As she spoke, the subway rumbled underneath us and underlined the weight of her words — the peppery words that couldn’t stay in her mouth any longer. They took root in a roomful of people and grew larger than any us individually. Just like at many other points throughout the night, I felt like I had climbed a little higher and could see a little farther beyond the narrow perspective I usually had, sitting in my chair doing psets. The room rumbled with the sounds of people unfolding over and over again, until they came to take up the space that was theirs to begin with.