Originally written for Winter Quarter 2015 Literary Journalism Writing Workshop with Professor Amy Wilentz
While many people are familiar with rap and poetry as written art forms, few know of another equally engaging art form: spoken word poetry, especially that which exists at UC Irvine. “Before UCI, I had no idea there was this huge subculture of spoken word around me. I didn’t even know what it was, really,” Emily Meneses says. She’s the president of Uncultivated Rabbits, UC Irvine’s only spoken word poetry group on campus. However, she’s not the only one who might have been unfamiliar with this small, niche poetry form; to this day, many students at UCI still don’t know the club even exists despite their frequent performances around campus.
Unlike the usual Ring Road choirs of “$2 boba!” and “$5 Korean Barbecue!” Uncultivated Rabbits shouts “Free poetry and lollipops!” and “express yourself this Friday, February 20th!” at their booth. If a student does agree to free poetry, he or she chooses any word, topic, or phrase. Then, a board member will write an impromptu poem about it. When given the topic “headphones,” Emily Meneses writes a poem titled “A Letter to my Headphones”:
I search for you where I left you
But it seems you always escape my grasp
You only show up when I don’t need you
Never where you left last
I’ll be here for you through song and silence
I know, you’ve been through a lot
A pun on losing headphones and helping a friend, the poem took her less than ten minutes to write.
Even the table design of the booth stands out from other white poster paper, Magic marker-covered advertisements. A soft, tan canvas sheet covers the table; “Uncultivated Rabbits” is spray-painted in black across the front of the sheet. There are also purple and green lollipops scattered like confetti atop the table with stickers that advertise the showcase. A set of Bluetooth speakers playing indie pop lies on top of this colorful mess while members dance like ballerinas around the table. Although most of the students who stop by seem to already know the Uncultivated Rabbits members, a few brave souls decide to walk up to claim their free poem or purchase their $5 advance ticket. Friend or no friend, they are treated just as amiably and openly. After all, they’re funding their art, aren’t they? If one walks up to this booth, however, one must be prepared to enter a different world.
Simply enough, Uncultivated Rabbits has become a place for a group of kooky, loveable art nerds to gather and be weird together. When entering the creative world of the rabbit hole, one can expect to find an unimaginably close family who knows how to set an audience dizzy with emotions in four lines of spoken word. Furthermore, through open mics, writing workshops, and performances, the club has also become a creative outlet from the constraints of other UCI spaces like laboratories, Greek life, and business associations. As the rabbits would say, welcome to the topsy-turvy world of performance poetry.
Started in 2005 by undergrads Caroline Chang, Nam Ngo, and John Nguyen, this niche, eccentric group hopes to gather and empower writers, rappers, and artists to collaborate and share ideas. The club is called Uncultivated Rabbits because, like rabbits, the members want to reproduce rapidly. However, they want to reproduce art rapidly, art that is uncultivated, or not “grown” by conventional standards. While not all continue spoken word past their college careers, many have found it helpful in places outside of the written verses, from academic writing to public speaking skills to strengthened communication and leadership abilities in the workplace.
In Uncultivated Rabbits, club members range from Biology majors to Psychology majors, Indian, white, and Latino, and a surprisingly even number of men and women, none of whom come from heavily strong writing backgrounds. One common trait, however, is their unique, plainly quirky energy that is comparable to the exclusive, strange and questionable dynamic of a theater crowd. Spending an unhealthy amount of time together, Uncultivated Rabbits board members deem themselves, like many other groups on campus, a very close-knit family. However, unlike other groups on campus, this family in particular is different brand of peculiar that one may not find in other general interest groups on campus. To give a better picture of just what kind of peculiar this means, intern Sabrina Sharifi captions a group photo of the club on Facebook:
“We are humans. We are poets. We are ridiculous all in our own way. We write in bath tubs, dance in parking lots, and sing regardless of who’s in the room. We are ourselves, both above, and underground. We are the Uncultivated Rabbits. Let us spit our words onto the canvas of your existence.”
“I saw your club on ring road passing out flyers today. They’re…interesting,” Emily Meneses chuckles, repeating what a friend mentioned to her earlier that day. Both of them were referring to the prancing and whimsical singing the members were doing earlier that day as they were selling tickets for “Down the Rabbithole,” the theme for Uncultivated Rabbits’ winter showcase. Drawing from an even darker Alice and Wonderland theme, the showcase name also alludes to the self-introspection that one may find when digging deeper down the rabbit hole, as board intern Robert O’Rourke explains.
A form and subculture of poetry, spoken word is poetry performed in rhythmic verses. It derived from multiple artistic movements like the Beatniks and the hip-hop movements, gathering importance as an actual genre in the 1990s. The first recognized performance of spoken word, or slam poetry, as the two are often intertwined, was in 1986 at a reading series in a Chicago jazz club. Today, spoken word is seen most commonly in open mics and hip-hop. Uncultivated Rabbits performs mainly in open mics, now often incorporating music into their poems in the same way hip-hop incorporates poetry and music together.
In the small Woods Cove conference room B in the UC Irvine student center, it becomes clear that the eight “Rabbits” know each other almost as well as they know themselves. The walls are plain white and grey, with cold, rectangular desks arranged in a circle. The members, however, are like anything but their surroundings. They dress tastefully and colorfully, a beautiful mess of floral scarves and leather jackets. Uncultivated Rabbits dresses to impress. While one newer member sits// on one arc of the circle, the other Rabbits perch nearby each other, some lounging on the floor and others on top of the desks. They’ve plonked themselves anywhere except the actual chairs facing the white plastic desks. Today’s theme is “The Golden Triangle” in today’s ice-breaker. The workshop leaders Farah Billah and Robert O’Rourke force everyone to stand and introduce themselves with a body motion. It is 6 PM at the beginning of a school week, yet with these body motions, people seem to have forgotten about that. The group certainly has no case of the Mondays as intern and workshop leader for the session, Robert O’Rourke, jumps into a middle split while simultaneously shouting his own name. O’Rourke was a cheerleader in high school. Everyone giggles. Instead of replicating Robert’s split, they choose to break into spastic dance, collapsing in different variations onto the floor while they shout their own names.
“Emily!” for Emily Meneses; she makes a classic “diving and cover nose” motion.
“Farah!” for Farah Billah, the board’s co-publicity chair; she effortlessly glides into a Britney Spears-esque body-roll.
“Sosa!” for Alejandro Sosa, the board’s historian, who simply collapses onto the ground.
One by one, members follow suit, all the while laughing at the fact that they can actually remember everyone’s names by doing this.
“There are three components in the golden triangle, and we will start off with the first one—eye contact!” explains Robert, who proceeds to explain eye contact in spoken word poetry for the group.
“Eye contact can save you in a performance. Eye contact indicates confidence, and confidence gives the audience the impression that you know what you’re talking about! And they’ll be moved by that so much and listen to you,” all of which he says while maintaining strict eye contact with his “students.”
Robert then pairs everyone off and gives each person the same stanza from a Maya Angelou poem, “Still I Rise.”
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise
Each pair is required to stare each other straight into each other’s eyes, two feet apart, and read the stanza from the poem.
Newcomer Ally Jinkins giggles nervously before she delivers her stanza to UR president Emily. A little intimidating, right?
“You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies—ugh this is so awkward!” Jinkins laughs before she proceeds to finish the stanza.
“No, you’re totally fine!” Meneses assures her. Her bright, red lipstick contrasts her huge, comforting smile.
“You may tread me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I rise!!” bellow board members Torrin Greathouse and Alejandro Sosa. They are even less than the designated two feet apart, foreheads touching as they challenge each other to a staring contest while reciting their stanzas at the same time.
After practicing eye contact with the stanza, Farah and Robert add two more elements to “The Golden Triangle” of spoken word, projection and stance.
Farah then purposely imitates everything a person shouldn’t do during a spoken word performance. While she looks at the ground, she speaks quickly and quietly, stating, “The audience won’t pay attention to you if you’re talking really fast and can’t hear what you’re saying and seem super unconfident and look at the ground and have no idea what they’re talking about.”
“But if I stand like this and open my arms, people will want to listen!” Farah switches into the correct stance for a performance. Her feet stay put and apart and her large, doe-eyes confidently address the group.
For the next two repetitions of the exercise, the pairs merely repeat the stanza, but incorporate the other two angles of The Golden Triangle, feet still and voices loud. At the end, they come together to perform the stanza to the majority of the group, effortlessly doing so. Aside from the newer member, the rest of the Rabbits clearly know what they are doing.
“Sell me poetry!” Robert shouts as Torrin delivers the stanza.
“I’m gonna sell things!” Sosa jokes before he too performs the Maya Angelou piece.
One by one, everyone confidently repeats their stanzas to the group. They’re definitely used to performing for larger audiences, and a small group of nine is nothing.
At the closing of their meeting, Uncultivated Rabbits comes together in a huddle to close the meeting. While the Golden Triangle workshop may have been a repeat of the same old moves they already know, it is still good practice for the “Down the Rabbithole” showcase.
A third year studying Psychology and Social Behaviors, Emily Meneses, the president of Uncultivated Rabbits, first became familiar with the spoken word collective after watching a low key, intimate performance at the Camino Del Sol housing complex.
Unlike other members, Emily did have some prior experience in writing and poetry coming into college, a hobby she hoped to continue.
“I’ve always been interested in writing and poetry in general but I had never been really familiar with the spoken word poetry scene, [however], this was the only writing organization I knew of on the UCI campus,” Emily says. “I wanted to meet people who were interested in the same things I was like writing and just that whole world of creating words.”
After watching a member at Camino Del Sol who later became her mentor, Emily was extremely surprised by the culture that Uncultivated represented. She learned it was more than just one of the few creative writing outlets on campus.
“When I joined and I realized that UCI has this whole underground culture of spoken word poets, they started showing me it’s a worldwide thing too. People [outside of UCI] make careers out of this and this is when I started realizing this was a whole culture,” she says.
After becoming the president of the club, Emily has now been in Uncultivated Rabbits for a full year and it’s pretty much taken over her life, for the better. Involved with no other clubs, Emily dedicates most of her time and energy to working on her poetry as well as intermingling with the Rabbits board members. She craves the freedom of expression in spoken word that her writing for Psych does not allow.
“It’s not dictated by a certain style. It’s not dictated by anything,” she states. “That’s why compared to other forms of art and literature in general, spoken word is completely free and evolves out of people who are rebelling against conventions [of writing] and rules, so that’s what I’ve always appreciated about it.”
Despite the freedom that spoken word provides, Meneses recognizes the small yet helpful constrictions of spoken word also, and that is the audience, which must always be kept in mind when writing.
“It’s really helped me with learning to be free with my art but at the same time doing it in a way that’s for other people, “ she claims. “I’m a performer; I’m not necessarily just creating anything I wanna create… I think what I’ve really learned from it is just the importance of doing your own thing and being free but also doing it in a way that people can relate to it.”
In addition to writing with an audience in mind, Uncultivated Rabbits has simply taught Emily to think like a writer, to see surroundings in such a way that could be written like a poem.
“It makes you look at things differently and observe the world in a different way than you would if you didn’t have a piece you were creating in mind,” she states. “Always looking at the world through the eyes of a writer rather than going about and not noticing things.”
For Emily, the board members of the Rabbits are essentially her crazy second family. As if the group doesn’t already spend enough time together practicing and performing, they spend an equally unhealthy amount of time outside the club. The board members’ Facebook profiles show how much their lives revolve around each others’. There are countless photos of them hanging out together, along with previous advertisements for spoken word open mics and showcases. However, Emily feels that the realness of their family dynamic is what makes them stand apart from other self-proclaimed student club families on campus.
“We’re definitely all crazy in our own ways. We’re poets, you know. So we’re bound to be crazy,” she says. “Still, It’s not just happy all the time because we fight and we bicker and we’re a family. With friends you don’t necessarily bicker all the time but with family you really see everyone. We’re together so much that we see each other’s every facets.”
Although Uncultivated Rabbits and spoken word has left a lasting impression on Emily, she doesn’t quite see herself continuing after college. However, like other UR alumni, she already feels the lasting impact that the club will make on her when she is done. “I know that I’m definitely going to be writing,” Emily says. “I see myself more as a writer than the others do, more as a writer than an orator, so I don’t think I would do spoken word after college. I do love it, but I love it more for the community aspect.”
Two days before the winter showcase, Uncultivated Rabbits hosts a rehearsal for board members only. Unlike the playful, entertaining yet informative nature of the performance workshop, this rehearsal is a serious matter since there are only two days until the final performance. One by one, the board members take their turns performing their poems to a seriously invested audience, who provide suggestions on the most minute details of the performance.
“After you finish, hold that silence for like, five seconds. It’s really powerful,” Farah instructs Robert O’Rourke on the closing lines of his poem, “Home is Nowhere.”
When intern Max Gonzalez delivers a line of his poem, “Traverse,” Sosa leaves his seat to hug him for the impressiveness of the line, “I dethrone silence.”
Torrin and Sosa perform a poem together titled “Jaundice,” a poem that resembles a scene from a play, Torrin impersonating the disease and Sosa the victim. Although they seem to know their lines well, they have problems keeping to the stichomythia, or alternating dialogue, sometimes accidentally talking over one another. Nobody says much to critique the boys; they already know they have a lot to rehearse before the showcase.
Overall, the rehearsal is a combination of praise and constructive criticism, but everyone treats their poems as if they were actually on the stage of Humanities Hall 178, where the performance is to take place. One poem that all members agree needs little criticism is Robert’s, “Home is Nowhere.”
“I am not a stereotype,” Robert bellows, traces of angst and frustration show on his face. “I am a gay, Irish Mexican, Apache, Cunty queen, who no tee no shade doesn’t give a fuck what you think.”
The poem is about Robert’s struggle with being accepted by others as a mixed race and gay male. He bites on each and every word as if nobody were listening, and he wants to get their attention. As in the performance workshop, Robert seems the most confident of all the Rabbits, keeping his stance. Robert has been clearly working on this poem for some time, and he has no problem locking eyes with each and every member watching.
“I am Robert James O’Rourke, and I am a goddamn human being,” he finishes. He means business, and he wants to get his message across to every family member who ever doubted him, who ever made him feel unaccepted. Uncultivated Rabbits is his outlet and a place where he feels comfortable being who he is, despite the struggles he expresses in the poem.
A sophomore studying biology, Robert O’Rourke seems to be one of the most dedicated and well-spoken members after a full year of being in Uncultivated Rabbits. After Torrin convinced him to come out and perform at an open mic, he found himself at every meeting. “When I joined Uncultivated, I thought my poetry sucked. However, what I think they liked about me was that I could project and have most of it memorized,” Robert remembers.
Unlike Emily, Robert was slightly familiar with the world of spoken word poetry prior to joining. “I’d watch it on Youtube and stuff and I was in a poetry club in high school but I literally just sat there and did nothing,” he says. “I enjoyed poetry but I didn’t actually do poetry. I always knew about it but I never really thought about it for myself. Now, here I am!”
Now that spoken word has become such an important part of Robert’s life, he uses it everywhere, essentially, from creative expression to academic writing.
“It’s an expressive outlet. It helps me articulate my feelings and I guess this poem in particular has a message, but mostly it’s just me ranting. People apparently like when I rant, so it’s just me.”
Robert occasionally writes about other topics, but spoken word is a personal outlet for him, and he writes mostly about and for himself.
“Most of the time it’s definitely about how I identify now, being gay and coming into that and what it means for me, just things with boys and stuff, Robert says. “Most of it is about being gay and how that plays into my whole life.”
As mentioned earlier, Robert has found that his creative writing and his academic writing have become interwoven with each other. He is even in the process of writing a spoken word piece for his queer history class.
“I think, though, that Uncultivated Rabbits has improved my writing skills a lot and my poetry a lot. It’s definitely helped in my academic writing too. You kind of feed off each other.” When asked about his role in the Rabbit family, he points out how simply bizarre he and the rest of the group are together.
“It’s interesting how all of board were best friends even before all of us were board members. We were always together. We’re just a really weird bunch of people. I don’t think you’ll find another group like us,” he affirms.
As he explains this dynamic, the board rehearsal has convened and members are messing around, While Sosa doodles vague word associations on the board, the rest of the members are mimicking a scene out of the obscene words they just sang, titling it “The Musical Urethra.” Everyone in the room happily participates in this musical, further affirming just what a wonderfully bizarre group of people they truly are.
On the day of the “Down the Rabbithole” performance, an impressive crowd of 50-60 people have come to watch. To better transform the lecture room into a theater, all fluorescent lights are turned off. “Backstage,” there is a chalkboard that members and attendees can draw on in between performances, and by the end it is covered in poetry and doodles of flowers and bunnies. “Hierarchy of needs / Hierarchy of desires / Hierarchy of the Human Race” reads one stanza. To complete the stage, white icicle lights lie on the ground and Alice and Wonderland-themed paintings rest against either ends of the stage. The stage settings and lighting have completely changed the lecture hall into an intimate setting for spoken word.
As the board members perform each of their pieces, the power of their words truly comes to life. Stanza after stanza receives an overwhelming amount of “Mmms,” snaps, and outright shouts and applause. When Robert delivers his line, “I am a gay, Irish Mexican, Apache, Cunty queen, who no tee no shade doesn’t give a fuck what you think,” the audience practically drowns him out with praise; several attendees stand up and applaud him. It is in this element that Robert truly feels acceptance.
Torrin and Sosa’s poem has clearly improved to performance standards equivalent to those of a Shakespeare play, or so it feels that way. With each stanza, they practically challenge each other. They battle, eyes locked with one another, and everyone is there to witness. “I have made you the outside inside of me,” Torrin, the disease, affirms, and the crowd erupts into “whoops” and shouts at the power of the line.
“Metastasize, metastasize,” the diseased pair closes, as they walk arm in arm off the stage.
Everyone delivers his or her poem with the same energy, the same passion that makes you realize why their group dynamic is so unique. On and off the stage, the Uncultivated Rabbits board is so comfortable with each other. During each poem, the members are applauding and hollering just as enthusiastically as the rest of the audience, and in between poems, they’re either dancing or chatting together. Their love for poetry and performance shine on the stage, and the energy they receive from the crowd is phenomenal. The moment each member enters the stage, nothing else exists; there is complete silence. With no stumbling between lines, they know their poetry like it’s imprinted into their skulls. After each poem, the members receive a long round of applause, and they simply stand there smiling, laughing, soaking in the praise. The room draws together a group of people who all seem to know each other and understand the importance of spoken word. This community of strange, creative people believes in this. It is a subculture that you truly don’t understand until you’re there with the performers, feeling the intensity of their emotions through poetry. When O’Rourke declares, “I am a goddamn human being,” it’s hard to not to produce any tears with the kid. Without realizing it, you also find yourself “mmm”-ing along with everyone else, applauding just as loudly at the finish of every poem. It is here that Robert’s yearning for acceptance becomes so real and so achievable.
When the showcase closes, the Rabbits force everyone to come onto the stage to close the performance the same way they did at their workshop and rehearsal.
“We end every meeting by saying, ‘Reproduce.’ “Why do we say reproduce?” Robert asks Torrin to explain.
“We say Reproduce because it is a play on our organization’s name,” he continues, music from an earlier poem playing. “Uncultivated Rabbits, like we [farmers who] cultivate produce. As others cultivate produce we cultivate art and rabbits, because what do rabbits like to do? They like to reproduce. We reproduce and breed art to the world. So on three we’re going to say, Reproduce…One, two, three.