A Guide to Hip Hop, Performance Poetry, Spoken Word, and Slam

Definitions from a Teenager

YOUTH WITH ARMS CROSSED. Justin Lambert/Getty Images

Eman was just 16, host of two weekly open mics & member of the youth creativity project at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in New York City, when we did this interview with her in the millennium year, 2000. She was (and is) a striking, energetic presence. Here are her sometimes startling responses, followed by an in-depth interview &... a poem!


OPEN MIC: When I heard about open mics, I thought it was going to be some little place, with people drinking expresso and wearing berets, sitting in big chairs and snapping their fingers for the people who performed.

There are some places like that, but luckily I don’t have to go to that kind of “stuck-upish” places. Our open mics are nothing like that, so I’m glad. I think a lot of teens think the same thing. That it’s going to be a stuffy place, with stuffy people... Not necessarily.

POETRY SLAM: They think competition. Being judged, sometimes unfairly. Rushing through their work. I don’t mind it, but some younger people don’t want to be put through that.

SPOKEN WORD: Most younger people don’t know what that is. It’s like a mix of poetic words, music, and hip hop. It’s a movement and state of mind.

PERFORMANCE POETRY: Some people think it’s about acting things out and doing some Shakespeare poetry. They don’t think it’s something fun or cool, but it’s more than that, even. Performance poetry is a state of mind almost, and a lot of teens think it’s dull because of some of the dull people they have seen.

POETRY: This is something even more difficult to explain. Poetry can mean so many different things to young people today. Some think it’s dull and boring and they don’t know the “real deal” about it. They haven’t seen someone amazing read and that’s why they think it’s not that great. But poetry is an explosion of words that should move you, even if the person reading it isn’t moving much.

HIP HOP: This can be a very different kind of meaning than what other people think. Some young people don’t even think there’s a difference between rap and hip hop, but there is. Hip hop is more of a poetic kind of thing, using rhymes and verses to get out what they are feeling and thinking and they do use poetry in it. Hip hop in a way is poetry with a beat.

RAP: This, to me, is less like poetry. More like just using words... There’s less intimacy in rap and people mistake rap for hip hop or hip hop for rap all the time... There’s a difference and it needs to be seen and heard. If people really listened to the words and looked less at the image, there would be a lot of rappers out of a job, because people would see the message. People have to listen. They just have to.

What’s your name (I made that crazy question up!)?
Well, my name is Eman... something... I think that I’m going to do the one name thing like the model... Just “Eman,” you know. It makes me seem more cool and mysterious....

Where do you live?
I’ve lived a lot of places, but right now, it’s NYC, baby. I’m always in the city, but I live in Queens and it’s cool.

When were you born?
Well, do you want my real age, or my age for now in this life?

I was born April 23rd... Hmmm, I could give the year and I could keep it a secret, because it was about a million years ago in 1984.

Where were you born?
I was born in boring old Long Island, but I have family from all around. My Mother is Black and Native American and my Father was Palestinian. Exotic mix, huh?

How does a teenager come to be co-hosting two open mics?
I have no idea. I just walked into a coffee place one night and I had brought some poems and my guitar and the woman that runs the reading was blown away with my energy and with what I had to say. And so after about a month and a half of going to the open mics, she asked me if I wanted to co-host with her and I said hell ya, you know.

The first one is at 272 West 10th Street in the West Village at the Community Village School. It’s called “The Poetry Beat” and it’s in the music room, every Tuesday night from 7 to 10 pm. We are open to just about everything people want to do.

Sometimes there’s a big crowd and other times it’s medium-sized.

The other reading used to be in Brooklyn, but as of two weeks ago, things changed and it’s going to be in Manhattan. (It had been in Cobble Hill at Shakespeare’s Sister.) The name of the reading is “Womyns Voices.” It was great and it’s going to be even greater at the new place.

It’s on the first and third Sundays of every month from 3:30 to 6:30 pm. It’s more of a womyn’s reading, but we always let men come in and read their stuff. On the Tuesday readings it’s me, Frank Robinson and Viviana Grell. On Sundays, it’s just me and Viviana Grell.

My open mics are something else. We dance there. We go crazy there. We are open to any kind of nutty people... sometimes that’s great, sometimes not so great, cuz some crazies come in, but it’s all fun. We get to experiment with many different ideas and we have features from all over who earn and deserve their spots as the features. Our open mic is just fun.

Who are your favorite dead poets?
Hmmm... I have to think long and hard about this.. Just kidding.... I’d have to say number one would be Walt Whitman. Not only because of his words and because he was openly gay, but because he put pictures into your head when you heard his poems. Another would have to be Edgar Allan Poe because of his eerie sense of everything -- I love that about his work. It opens my mind to things that give you so much insight into the world of the scary and unusual, and it’s cool.

I know this might sound odd, but Martin Luther King is another one of my favorite poets.

Now you must be thinking, “Sweetie, he was wonderful and everything, but he wasn’t a poet....” To me, he was. His words held such power. They could control a crowd and that’s what poets do. They come on stage and control the crowd with their words.

Who are your favorite living poets?
I’ll just go down the list of the greatest poets who perform around the city. Some of them I know personally and they are excellent people, and some of them I’ve just seen perform, but I know the majority of them personally. Here we go: Beau Sia, Ishle Park, Viviana Grell, Frank Robinson, Suheir Hammad, Mark Bonhomme, Vicky Johnson, Camillo Dimaria, Bob Hart... and this list goes on and on, but those are my top favorites. I’d put myself on the list, but ya know, that doesn’t look right....