The stage is bohemian basic-two standing house lights, a mic stand, some patterned cloth, and a lava lamp. Behind the stage area tacked up to one of the wooden cabinets, a sign reads “This is a WordPlay safe space.” The scene is far from the Puritan New England landscape that Nathaniel Hawthorne evoked in his 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter. Yet for the teens, standing up in front of a crowd of their peers-I imagine-breathing softly into the microphone, trying to gather their nerves and vocal chords into some kind of unified performance, Hester Prynne’s pillory experience of public examination isn’t actually that far off.
The December 2006 Fresh Heat open mic, like all WordPlay open mics, was bigger and better than the last, but for the first time sans Anna West. Another sign visible behind the teen performers commands the audience to “Respect the mic, Respect the audience, Respect the room.” West, director of WordPlay, whose voice typically offers a vocal reminder to “Respect the mic,” was absent from the December reading due to sickness. As director of WordPlay, West has worked hard to cultivate a coherent and consistent “safe space” for Baton Rouge youth to express themselves. Luckily one bad cold was not enough to close down this venue of youth expression for even a single show. Fresh Heat, the only youth spoken word open mic in Baton Rouge, has become a safe space indeed.
I knew this best when I saw it played out in the literal sense. Not ten minutes into the show, a poet referenced Hawthorne in order to castigate his own too-absent father. Spitting lines that wrapped around him like a cloak, words, phrases, scarlet letters, he built in a matter of seconds a poised audience, ready to listen, quiet, waiting. As Hawthorne wrote, “[The scarlet letter] had the effect of a spell, taking [Hester Prynne] out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.” Earlier this writer asked me what he would do without Fresh Heat when he was older and away at college. I suggested that he carry Fresh Heat and WordPlay with him, that he make his own personal safe space crafted like the richly embroidered “A” Hester Prynne made to wear on her chest. That then he’d never be without Fresh Heat or WordPlay or himself. The straightforward reference to Hawthorne in his poetry was exciting. He got it. He was wielding his own safe space.
After the show I offered him a copy of The Scarlet Letter. To my surprise he turned it down. Was I wrong? Had I missed a step? A sign? He asked me if I had read the book yet. I smiled sheepishly. I hadn’t. I thought about his performance later, the mic, the audience, all the pain he’d poured into his poem like layers of undercooked cake. I still didn’t know why he turned the book down. But I recognized his need to stand on the pillory of life and shelter himself with his own finely crafted letters, words, lines.
There were other heady, exciting performances, the first Fresh Heat slam competition, a New Orleans headliner, Sunni Patterson, who abandoned the mic altogether to stand at the back of the room and belt verses from within the throng of standing teens. Words about pain and poverty and remembrance floated out like colored balloons into the room. Life is unsafe, the world is unsafe – her words oozed apprehension, warnings. But they were mild and experiential. She was modeling for us – the power of words to apply salve to our own wounds. By the end of the night, I was certain that the December Fresh Heat open mic was-yes-the best one yet. Scarlet letters flowed throughout the room, scores of poems, words and words and words, building a safer and safer space with each telling. Nearly two weeks later, the night stays fresh and hot in my memory.