Every week, Kerckhoff Art Gallery transforms from an often-overlooked study spot to an open mic space for The Word on Wednesday.
Fairy lights are set up in the front of the room and a wrinkled piece of paper stipulates that attendees should not get up during a performance, and most importantly, not express anything that falls under an “ism,” such as sexism or racism. The Word on Wednesday establishes itself as a refuge for poets to discuss anything without fear of judgment. To the students who fill the gallery each week, the event is an open safe space for poetry, political rants, confessions of unrequited love and everything in between.
Hosted by the Cultural Affairs Commission of the Undergraduate Students Association Council, The Word on Wednesday also helps students build cultural awareness through listening to the experiences of their peers. Many regular attendees agree The Word provides students stuck in the UCLA bubble with a much-needed culture shock.
Any student is welcome to listen and perform during the night. Some come prepared with little blurbs typed up in the notes section of their phones, and readily sign their names to the clipboard of performers when they step in. Others linger in their seats until they finally pluck up the courage to stand and recite the words buzzing in their heads.
Some weeks, The Word will host special events like poetry workshops, where anyone in the UCLA community can take a moment to reflect and write on a designated prompt. However, the general routine of the Wednesday night open mic has become quite consistent since The Word’s inception in 2010.
Students and sometimes faculty file into the gallery around 7 p.m. Hosts pose the night’s “fishbowl question” for students to answer on a slip of torn notebook paper and anonymously place into a box. The Word's staff members pass around a clipboard for poetry sign-ups. Then, the poets commence and the responses to the fishbowl question are pulled out between every two recitations to lighten the often somber mood.
Fishbowl questions range from favorite “fuckboy fire” songs – catchy songs with problematic lyrics – to advice for your younger self. Poems cover topics such as the art of making a good Spotify playlist and the damaging effects of sexual assault.
Though the schedule of the meetings has become second nature to longtime members, the dynamic of each open mic night is defined anew every Wednesday. Some nights, the mood is heavy with the sharp aftertaste of stories of abusive lovers, racist encounters and gang violence. Other nights, singers covering SZA tracks and harpists playing solos contribute a spiritual lightness to the space.
Most nights, the two sides of the spectrum go together harmoniously; the amusing fishbowl questions weave effortlessly in between the existential or somber nature of the poems.
My whole life is my love life.
at least that's what it seems.
I find it difficult to write about the deeper stuff, the shit that REALLY bothers me
Like how I am a black dot on a white piece of paper & this institution is only using me as one of their few tokens
Or how I let in every pretty girl with nice eyes and a smile that's broken.
Or how my depression, yes depression, I have depression, & I've never been able to tell my parents.
My dad is black, my mom is Asian, 2 communities that treat mental illness like they would an open wound,
Slap a bandaid over it, ignore it, keep it movin.
But I have it, oh god I have it, I've had it since middle school
But I've buried it, tossed it to the side, piled it up with something, anything that might close this gaping fucking hole in my chest.
Maybe that's why I'm so focused on love, on every girl that parades sweet nothings off of her poisonous tongue
Because it fills me whole temporarily, until the venom from the root of her fingers eventually comes undone
and it cools then suffocates every vein in my body, & every rotten thought in my head & suddenly I'm no longer depressed.
No. I hit rock fucking bottom.
The gaping hole now bigger, has hardened as well
& the bodies natural reaction is to of course fix the problem. heal this invisible disease that's corroding me from the inside out.
I don't feel like myself anymore.
I can't feel myself anymore.
I try to drink it away, get high to alleviate the pain
I told my parents I'm hurting, they say the problem is that I'm gay
Going against "Gods natural order," of course he's going to make you suffer
He's going to seal the air around you, suffocate you, destroy you, but still claim "I love her"
Because he does, Bianca. God is everything you'll ever need.
Whenever you're feeling sad, just get down on your knees
But they don't understand that that has never worked for me.
I'm a human.
I need help.
Bianca Brown was scribbling some notes on the side of her paper during a gender studies class when her project partner, a staff member of The Word at the time, noticed the words she was writing were lines of poetry.
That classmate eventually introduced Brown, now a third-year philosophy student and co-host of The Word on Wednesday, to the weekly open mic nights.
Although Brown often wrote poetry as a means of getting through some of her hardships during high school, she never imagined herself performing her pieces in front of an audience.
“I wrote a lot of poetry in high school, but I never read anything. ... I was hella closeted, so I wrote about being trapped and wrote about little crushes,” Brown said. “I was lowkey very emo in high school, so I used poetry to write about (my experiences).”
When Brown began attending The Word during her first year at UCLA, she was struck by the authenticity of the artists and their willingness to share personal stories as an art form. Brown said the artists helped her see the good that could come from sharing her own private struggles.
“I stopped setting myself to a standard after hearing the poets at The Word,” she said. “I used to compare myself to other artists, but now I feel whatever I want to and am less afraid to share parts of me that I had trapped inside before.”
The Word often features poems about deeply personal topics, such as closeted homosexuality and experiences with abusive partners, and Brown said she was especially comfortable talking about her own experiences knowing that others would empathize. Brown trusted that her poems would reach receptive audiences who could connect to her messages even though they were complete strangers.
“The first time I went to (The Word) I said, ‘I am not going to read,’” Brown said. “But when you get there and listen to people perform and others who give support to the performers, you get an urge to share a part of yourself you never would have wanted to before.”
Song: Who Shot Ya?
Artist: Piggy Smalls
Mixtape: Black and Blue
Who shot ya?
A question for the young G's murdered by the OG
Thug kings with M16s, rings, and every weapon between
Who handle all the things we call criminal at subliminal home precincts
I said who shot ya?
A question for the whole world, a question for the young girls and queens, a question for me
The bronze token, a charlatan, a penny who ain't wise enough to recognize when white supremacy clowns me
Although I know the CIA played drugs all through ya neighborhoods
Then a war on drugs brought hugs 'tween wives and prison mates
Regardless I drive, Black, white, blue all through ya neighborhoods
You call me Uncle Tom but my brother Sam payin' me to stay
It's no debate to me, cuz
despite the moral wickedness you claimin',
all I'm sayin' is I'd rather be a Tom than Tray
Haters gonna hate, but this food on my table,
And my girls' sweet dreamin's worth the price I gotta pay
The roots of Jabril Muhammad’s poetry go back to his sixth-grade spelling assignments.
While other kids raced to finish writing sample sentences for their designated spelling words, Muhammad had no problem taking his time. In fact, he made it a point to make his sentences eloquent – poetic, even.
The fourth-year sociology student's father exposed him to poetic expression early on by listening to hip-hop and rap.
“Growing up, I knew that rap was an acronym for rhythm and poetry,” Muhammad said. “I knew from a young age that rap is a form of poetic expression.”
This early exposure to spoken word made Muhammad eager to experience The Word when his friend asked him to attend in the spring quarter of his first year. During his first open mic night, Muhammad felt so comfortable in the space that he ended up performing.
“The space is a free space and in that way, it represents a subversion of the injustices we feel on a daily basis,” Muhammad said. “Usually, the world suppresses some voices, but this experience of freedom really encapsulates the notion of social justice.”
From the beginning, Muhammad felt The Word was a place where it was safe to speak about his experiences, especially dealing with institutional racism. During his third year, Muhammad was the resident assistant of the Afrikan Diaspora Living Learning Community, where he was able to hear about others’ experiences being racially profiled and immerse himself in Black culture. These experiences also inspired his poetry, he said.
Muhammad often talks about the Black experience in his poetry, including the accompanying poem, in which he imagines a Black policeman who must confront the issue of police brutality. By speaking about the struggles Black people face and his own experiences as a Black man, Muhammad brings awareness to the marginalization of Black communities, which are often left out of discussions both on campus and in society as a whole.
“The most powerful tool of humanity is the ability to name things,” Muhammad said. “When we talk about silent oppression, it is not until we put a name to (our struggles) and talk about them that we take away the power from (the oppressor).”
My house is not a home anymore
It is not peach walls and sacred plants
It is not wrinkled hands holding me in place
Preventing me from slipping into my own made abyss
It is a paradise now.
I long to flee to it. I nozzle my face in the arms that bore me but I am no longer able to embrace them
I, a phantom now have taken the place of the person I once was
Or maybe I never was. I always was what I am now
A Paradox of walking death with the sun kissing her cheek
Maybe I always was an empty shell, a barren cocoon
A stillborn believing I made it through my mother’s canal, Holy.
My eyes sinking into my skull as I watch the shadows I used to call friends exist without me.
I am only there for the sake to hear my name in voices that aren’t hollow
Can you say it again?
Karla Duarte identifies with many different labels: El Salvadorian, feminist, transfer student, queer and, recently, genderqueer – using pronouns "she," "her" and "theirs." The fourth-year anthropology student uses The Word as a place to learn about herself by sifting through her intersecting identities.
The Word serves as an open space for Duarte to talk through hardships she faces. She often brings up her many classes that depict Central Americans in an unfavorable light.
“Going into my major, I thought this would be where the professors of color would be and I could finally learn about my experiences in an academic setting and grow,” she said. “But it always happens to be white professors, and it often feels like an outsider looking in and pointing out the flaws of my people.”
Duarte said she often sees her people represented poorly when professors speak about deeply ingrained institutional issues. For example, they discuss the struggles of poor nutrition or lack of mental health resources in a negative light, without understanding the socio-economic factors behind these issues. Duarte recalled an especially frustrating incident in which her professor criticized the diets of Central Americans for being unhealthy and conducive to obesity and diabetes, without addressing how poverty in the region leads to such conditions.
As a way of speaking up against some of the misguided ethnocentrism she has faced in class, Duarte has taken to poetry to express her anger and educate people about her background.
“Sometimes I hear something a professor says that erases a lot of my history and out of that erasure, I start prewriting,” she said. “Then I find the lines that I like and I go from there.”
Although she does not shy away from engaging with her professors’ comments in thought-out response papers, Duarte is most comfortable letting out her frustrations during The Word. She said she does not feel the need to curb her discontentment among people willing to understand her viewpoint and remind her that her anger is justified.
“I appreciate when a lot of my professors give response papers, and I vent my anger in an academic sense,” Duarte said. “But at (The Word), I do not hold back and I pick apart every intersectionality the professors miss.”