By Erica Anderson and Casey Curtis
Before launching into a reading of each of her poems, Lenelle Moïse used those words to ask for the audience’s permission to begin. So using words she began her performance by teaching them, the spectators urged her on, allowing her to proceed as they pronounced on queue the unfamiliar syllables of Haitian Creole. “In Haitian culture, a storyteller cannot begin her story without the audience’s permission,” she explained.
Moïse’s performance followed a short break and resounding applause for all the slam participants. She was introduced by the event organizers as a “traveling poet, playwright and solo performance artist” who makes art about “bi-cultural identity, creative resistance and the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, memory and spirit.” Moïse is well-known in Northampton as the city’s fifth poet laureate and a prominent figure in the spoken word arena.
Her reading echoed with the strength of a tradition much older than the American slam poetry movement as she connected to the vibrant history of Haitian storytelling, her place of birth. Moïse’s brilliant toothy smile became subdued as she spoke her first lines of poetry.
“Jazz is underwater,” she proclaimed, and then repeated, and again, growing increasingly breathless between the phrases, increasing the urgency of her words as she spoke about the fall-out from, and government reaction to Hurricane Katrina.
Moïse’s performance was marked by these more traditional slam hallmarks. At every opportunity she locked eyes with the audience, her gaze stretching outwards reaching and pulling onlookers in from every corner of the space. She mesmerized with well-practiced movements such as that of her fingers caressing invisible piano keys as she referred to them, or the motion of her arm to illustrate a fall, suggesting one of several of the multiple meanings implied by her language.
Her full body was used to accentuate her words, hips and arms swung wide in motions both fluid and graceful as crisp diction expressed her ode to Michael Jackson. The organic nature and obvious comfort level with the meaningful positioning hinted at her thespian background, a reminder of her master of fine arts degree in playwriting from Smith College.
Her voice filled the room, deep and sensuous with flawless projection. Words’ pacing became meaning as her rich alto timber added resonance to her rapid tonal switches. The Landmark wordsmiths of the earlier slam were both impressed and appreciative of the instinctive and natural energy with which she engaged the audience during her appearance.
Lesle Lewis, co-chair of the English department, invited her to Landmark at the recommendation of an organizer of the Brattleboro Literary Festival. “Her performance was perfect for the event,” she said, referring to the companion program to the poetry slam.
The regard was mutual, as Moïse expressed in an e-mail to Lewis, “It was wonderful to feel the community’s excitement for poetry and to share my work in such a warm and attentive room.”