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Of speech acts, poetry slams and marriage proposals

One approach to poetry involves looking at each individual poem in terms of what it proposes, the way it functions as an artifact in and of language, and how it performs as what the philosopher of language J.L. Austin called an "illocutionary act." 
 
Curiously, in his influential, albeit posthumously published How to Do Things with Words (1962), Austin maintained that if a "performative utterance" occurred in a poem, it must be an "infelicitous" or "unhappy" speech act (as opposed to a "felicitous" or "happy" one), presumably because poems cannot be evaluated on the basis of the same "felicity conditions" as more conventional speech acts. 
 
Austin died unexpectedly at age 48 in 1960, so there's no telling what the former Oxford professor of moral philosophy might have made of last Saturday night's final round of QEW Regional Poetry Slam held at the R Healin Center on Kensington Avenue in Buffalo. That's where Brandon Williamson of the Buffalo-based Njozi Poets ensemble concluded the performance of his piece "Life Changing Performance" with a proposal of marriage to his girlfriend, Julia Nicole Hopson.
 
You can watch the YouTube video of Williamson's dynamic, spoken-word performance piece here.
 
With all due respect to professor Austin, we submit that young Mr. Williamson's "performative utterance" was a very happy and felicitous one indeed. Ms. Hopson certainly believes so. She said "Yes!"
 
The couple met at Fredonia State College, of which both are graduates. Ms. Hopson is a media and graphic artist and web designer originally from the Poughkeepsie area. Mr. Williamson, who is a graduate of the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, now teaches theater at Buffalo's Oracle Charter School and is active in the Buffalo theater community.
 
According to N'tare Ali Gault, founder and organizer of the Njozi Poets and a veteran observer and participant of the poetry slam scene nationwide, Williamson's marriage proposal embedded in a spoken word performance piece is more than a rhetorical twist or deus ex machina; it's the entire point of his seriocomic four-minute monologue, in which the speaker aspires to a "life-changing performance" in a number of familiar cultural role-playing tropes, only to settle on ground much closer to his heart.  
 
Even in a roomful of experienced poetry slam performers and attendees, Williamson's "speech act" rocked the house. In a performance genre where novelty is increasingly hard to come by, Gault, whose most recent publication is The Sun Will Rise: A Memoir of an Urban Family, reports that it's the most successful such incursion of art into family life he's ever witnessed.
 
As much of a show stopper as Williamson's performance was, it wasn't enough to catapult Gault's Njozi Poets to victory in the six-team, two-night competition, which began on Dec. 4 at the Black Swan Tavern on Danforth Avenue in Toronto. Njozi finished a very close second, just three-tenths of a point behind the Burlington (Ontario) Slam Project in the cumulative scores. Toronto Poetry Slam finished a highly competitive third, followed by Slam Fam (representing Toronto), Uncommon Sense (Buffalo) and B.A.M (Toronto).
 
If you're a fan of hip-hop poetics and spoken-word performance, your next chance to hear The Njozi Poets -- who in addition to Gault and Williamson currently also feature the considerable talents of James Cooper III and Shawnell Tillery -- will be at 7 p.m. Dec. 28, when they appear with the legendary spoken-word ensemble The Last Poets at the Pratt Willert Community Center, 422 Pratt St., as part of Buffalo's Kwanzaa celebration. The event is free and open to the public.
 
--R.D. Pohl
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