Excelano Project Comes to Couit Center for the Arts

From left, Cortney Charleston, Hannah Van Sciver, Seth Simons, Jillian Blackwell, Victoria Ford, and Richard Thomson.

It was part witty and hilarious stand-up comedy, part heart-and-soul-felt reflection on personal experience, part astute observation on life, and all amazing. Six members of the University of Pennsylvania’s Excelano Project brought their spoken word show/poetry slam to Cotuit Center for the Arts on Saturday, April 28, to the delight of those in attendance. Performing their works alone and in groups, each told their own stories in short bursts of passion and quiet moments of sober reflection. Each poet has clearly found—or is experimenting with—his or her own voice.

Not a regular attendee of poetry slams, I was not quite sure what to expect, but poet Hannah Van Sciver, a sophomore (and the reason for the Excelano Project visit—she is from Cape Cod and and enjoyed performances and classes at  Cotuit Center for the Arts while growing up), and Richard Thomson, a junior, gave us a fine introduction.

“Just listen to the poetry, and, if you like what you hear, snap your fingers, stomp your feet, murmur ‘mmmmm,’ nod your head, make some noise. When you hear noise, people are having fun.”

While the audience did not engage much in fingersnapping (not being used to it, I found it a little distracting myself), they clearly had fun. The poetry brought generated laughter and appreciation, good feeling, and awe of the talents of these young people, so eloquent in their words, and so expressive in their presentation of their poems, all from the heart, more than from memory.

Hannah and Richard opened with “Hypocrite’s Café,” a very funny description of a poetry café “where cool is a vegan sugar substitute stirred into hot black coffee” and “where it is not cool to be cool any more.” They mocked the angry poet and other stereotypes, but came down strongly on the side of poetry:

“Poetry,” Hannah said “is an open door to everything we are”
“and everything we hope to be,” concluded Richard.

I did not videotape the event, but found this version of it on Youtube, where, unfortunately the laughter and “noise” drowns out some of the poem, but it provides a good sense of the performance: http://youtu.be/WkrHXTMLYHA

The acoustics were great at Cotuit Center for the Arts, and we could hear the words clearly. I would have loved to be able to rewind, though, to savor and reflect upon the torrent of words and phrases and thoughts, and their interconnections, a little more slowly. But then it wouldn’t be a poetry slam—and the poets’ intensity added so much to their words. And, as with music, sometimes the specific words are secondary, so long as the rhythm is strong and the feelings authentic.

Seth Simons was next with his poem, “Gown.” His delivery was dramatic, almost diabolical, and very entertaining. “Let’s Inherit the Earth, right now. I’m tired of waiting.”

Later, in “Ontario,” he paid homage to his dog, blending wit, love, and irony. Jealous when his mother e-mails him a video of his dog “playing with the neighbor kids, the usurpers.” “Darling,” he cried out, “who is this empty-eyed milquetoast with his fingers in your fur? Cast him aside and I will be there in a heartbeat—which for you is seven heartbeat

Next was “Round Drain, Round Glasses,” an emotional poem by senior Jillian Blackwell about her father: “I am standing in the bathtub crying. . . .

I more often think about what his face looked like,
Find that I remember the half-finished drawing I made of him better than his actual face,
The drawing only his round glasses, his brow folded in thought, his eyes not looking at me.”

Victoria Ford presented a powerful “Self-Defense,” in which she says: “Another thing I’d rather not know about myself is what a good Marine I’d make.” “The truth about our hands,” she said, “is that they can be more damaging than bullets, can break an entire body apart if you let it, until you simply disengage.”

Equally moving was her “Rooted,” about her family: “We’ve got roots with troubled trunks.”

Here is a recording of this poem from another performance: http://youtu.be/yQ5ZubJ5mK4

There is a lot of pain, insight, and recovery in both works, and Victoria’s presentation made them all the more meaningful. She writes, she said on Excelano web page, because it is a healing.

In “Stonehenge,” Richard created memorable images, combining humor with thoughtful comments on society. He asks us to “Imagine aliens coming to earth the day the last human died. What would they find? Our cities to them, just sharp stones…shards of mute intention like Stonehenge.”

He reflects on finding a Facebook page of a girl who had been dead for two years: “I know that somewhere she hangs like a lamp in a dark room, turning on whenever someone remembers her face.”

“In 60 years, Facebook will have become the world’s largest cemetery.”

In her funny and perceptive poem, “Cheshire Cat,” Hannah writes about love.

You are the dirtiest four-letter word I know.
You are the rick-roll pop-up video.
You are a urinal on display at the MOMA….

“I had been trying for weeks to write any poem that wasn’t a love poem.
But love, like a whack-a-mole, kept popping up.”

The poem is wonderfully full of words and images tumbling over each other, and, fortunately, it can be found on Hannah’s Excelano Project page.

Senior Cortney Charleston also wrote about love, in “Mona Lisa,” who “haunts me like something holy in the devil’s den.”

“She always seemed to have these insides of mine
slithering into slipknots. Every time she smiled,
at me, my stomach would lynch a butterfly.”

Cortney writes, he says on the Excelano page, “to scribble over all the wrong.”

“Short Poems” were presented several times during the evening, each heralded by a group of poets shouting “short poems!” with great excitement. These poems were very short and very funny, displaying, like the longer poems, the poets’ love of language, life, and ideas.

The only one I wrote down was this one:

“Art makes no sense, not even the coin kind.”

Poetry does makes sense, though, even if your interpretation may differ from mine, or that intended by the poet,a nd if they change from time to time. “Excelano” does not mean “excellence,” as one might assume, but, according to the Excelano Project website, it means “we march forth,” an expression of the group’s vitality and purpose, to give voice to its members, and to touch the lives of audience members, through progressive thinking and artistic expression.

The Excelano Project website is at www.excelanoproject.com. You will find poetry there, and links to videos.  You can also find other performances on YouTube. “Van Gogh’s Ear for Music,” the group’s 10th anniversary chapbook, was available for purchase at the event. For more information on the chapbook, e-mail Excelano.Project@gmail.com.

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