Poetry and Performance Art: Open Mic Night at Parkway North

You may not have realized a poetry/prose/performance blow-out was happening on campus on the evening of Oct. 19, running so late I had to leave early to catch the last bus home. Forget what you knew about campus events: Bring Your Own Poetry/Prose/Performance featured a number of badass, influential artists who happen to be Portland State students. The show prioritized underrepresented and marginalized voices, had free pizza (including vegan options), and ended with an open mic following the scheduled performances. It took place in Parkway North, that room next to the dining hall where you can find PSU “Live @ Lunch” some weekdays.

Maya Stoner, the Promotion Director for KPSU, curated BYOP/P/P. She’s also the president of Good Cheer Records, a prominent musician (Floating Room), and a BFA student at PSU. “I had a feeling that poetry and performance art would pair together well because they both require a unique type of focus from the audience that differs from audience engagement at a music event,” she said.

Stoner’s strategy of combining disciplines was effective, as the audience was attentive and excited, not knowing what to expect from one piece to the next. Plus, writers and performers benefited from the variety, gaining a widened sense of community and support. “Because of underrepresentation, it can be difficult for marginalized artists to network with one another,” Stoner continued. “They are usually tokenized as the sole representative of their culture on an event. I see it as my job to provide space and opportunities for marginalized artists to thrive.”

One of the night’s strongest performances was by Caroline Usovics, an interdisciplinary artist who works in sculpture, video, painting, performance, social experiments, and more. She introduced herself with a cheerful demeanor and hit play on her handheld cassette recorder. Curiosity quickly turned to suspense as Usovics pulled out scissors and started hacking at her long, black hair. Each snip was audible over the recording, in which Usovics openly described traumatic experiences involving self-image and her relationship with her father. The recording on its own would be satisfying, but Usovics kept cutting her hair. And then she brought out petroleum jelly. She started smearing it all over her body, face, arms. She started pressing these clumps of her chopped hair into the petroleum jelly, effectively transforming herself.

At one point she laughed, which was actually scary. And amazing. I cried the whole time. I’m pretty sure everyone did. “The story I shared was a personal story of physical and emotional abuse,” Usovics said. “I’m sick of feeling like everyone around me is being silenced. We need to share. We need to grow. We can do it together.”

Usovics is on the lookout for house shows and art spaces where performance art is welcomed. “I hope to create a movement with like-minded artists,” she said. “I want to see performances that break my heart and put it together again. I want this sort of work to become synonymous with the Portland art scene.”

Another highlight of the evening was Winnie Black, whose expertise includes music, performance, sound, paint, video, DIY space suits for Pacific Spaceflight, and stick-n-poke tattoos. On one side of the stage, a little old-school TV played her visceral collage of a film. Some parts could have been part of a narrative, while others seemed to describe the aesthetic of a cool, dirty lifestyle.

On the other side of the stage, Winnie wore a ski mask, keeping her body low and creating sonic magic with an elaborate electronic setup. Sometimes she played with a radio, distorting and appropriating its sounds. Textural, bassy, sometimes dancy, and consistently captivating, her music transformed the room into a new place entirely. A certain level of aggression permeated the music, or was it just sureness of self? Refusal of apathy?

“A lot of my work centers on harnessing self exploration and acceptance, which I think is a theme that a lot of femmes can relate to,” Black said. “I hope to inspire empowerment in doing the things you want to do, even if they’re freaky.” Winnie Black regularly plays shows in Portland and promotes via Facebook.

Will the BYOP’s eclectic-headed monster return to challenge our tastes? Stoner says yes. “I received great feedback from the audience and performers, and I’m excited to improve my abilities as an emcee in the future,” she said. “I have tons of ideas on how to improve the event and I had wide array of performances in mind for the next one!”

She also tipped us off to the next event she’s getting ready for: “There is a punk show on campus featuring Mr. Wrong, Heartless Magnus, Planet Damn, and The Stoney Moaners on Nov. 9. I’m really excited for the show because all of the bands are great. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some of them before and know that they kill it live. Some of my favorite memories of shows at PSU were punk shows back in the day growing up. Watching bands like Cower play at the old Food for Thought Cafe was inspiring as a teenager, and I hope to bring this inspiring atmosphere to shows at PSU today. I’m also excited because PSU is an all-ages venue, something that is increasingly rare and severely lacking in Portland.”