September 23, 2019 | 70° F

Underground poetry scene at Rutgers gives students unique platform for self-expression

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The poetry scene at Rutgers has expanded over the last few years to include a wide variety of venues and writers. Organizations like the Huntington Poetry Club strive to make poetry innovative and accessible to students.

From the basements of Central Avenue to the classrooms of Milledoler Hall, the Rutgers University poetry scene has expanded its influence to the student body.

Several student-run poetry organizations on campus, like the Huntington Poetry Club and Verbal Mayhem Poetry Collective, focus their meetings off of the encouragement of self-expression. The organizations are reconstructing the definition of poetry from mere words written and performed in a strict format, to something larger.

Members of these organizations said that these poetry collectives create spaces where students can be themselves and share their stories without judgment.

Poetry surrounds individuals in many facets and can be any form of self-expression, said Marques Ruiz,  a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore and content creator for Verbal Mayhem.

“With poetry, we have more outlets to express ourselves. Sometimes people need their own set of meanings to express themselves. Especially in an environment like Verbal Mayhem, it's one of those environments where you can express it and someone cares,” Ruiz said.

The standard definition of poetry in no way represents what happens in meetings for Verbal Mayhem and the Huntington Poetry Club. At the open-mic style gatherings, students can witness any form of self-expression, from traditional poetry readings to live music, rap performances and more.

Students are responding well to poetry-based organizations at Rutgers, considering how they started.

“It was a very small, five to six person affair,” said Radcliffe Bent, a current leader of the Huntington Poetry Club and School of Arts and Sciences senior. 

The club began with a few students gathering in a basement. The club now sees crowds of 20 to 30 at each meeting.

Verbal Mayhem, too, began with just two students in a basement. Years later, the organization is now a recognized club at Rutgers and draws a nearly full lecture hall at each meeting.

The increasing popularity of poetry organizations on campus can be partially attributed to frustrations involving the recent political climate. The open expression and safe communities that these clubs promote draw diverse crowds of individuals compelled to share their experiences and opinions, Ruiz said.

“You see people from different majors you would never think you see. They may look like they wouldn’t know any poetry but they come here and they deliver some of best lines of poetry you will ever hear … We have people coming in that don’t even go here,” Ruiz said.

In speaking their truths, members are participating in emotional relief while working to make Rutgers a more accepting and educated community.

“(Poetry) is a recognition that no matter what political sphere you’re from, no matter what ethnicity you are, we’re all united in that struggle… We come here and we realize we are really far from alone and that’s awesome,” said Deidre Hansalik, a School of Arts and Sciences junior and a member of Verbal Mayhem.

Although the clubs serve as spaces for emotional reflection, they also function as platforms for social change. Students are using the art form to teach peers about empathy and to educate them on social issues, said Austin McCaffrey, a School of Arts and Sciences junior and another leader of the Huntington Poetry Club.

“I think (poetry) could help students accept and cultivate a certain receptiveness because I think that people underestimate how receiving is actually active, it's not passive. I think a lot of people our age have very active minds and they associate that activity with the ability to learn as opposed to reception, as opposed to listening,” McCaffrey said.

The overall consensus from both clubs agreed that the poetry culture at Rutgers has very little to do with poetry. The communities cultivated by these organizations create spaces where students can be themselves and share their stories without judgment and while making a change.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, the moment you get up there and you start to speak, you resonate with someone, somewhere, in some form. That’s completely irreplaceable,” Hansalik said.

Mary Ellen Dowd is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in Journalism and Media Studies. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.

Mary Ellen Dowd

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