Sencha After Hours: poetry, music and a cup of tea

The Mac Weekly

Late last Thursday night, a horde of eager fans gathered in front of the glowing Sencha sign on Grand Avenue. Despite impending homework and sleeplessness, Macalester students arrived by the dozens. All came for the night of performance entitled “Sencha After Hours”, which was organized by Macalester’s own Talia Young ’17.

While sipping their complimentary tea, they witnessed a unique spectacle: slam poetry meets storytelling meets music by local artists. The result? A night of wordplay and talent from some young rising stars.

The proceeds of the event went to Tubman, a non-profit organization that supports those struggling with relationship abuse and mental health issues. This choice of non-profit was not an accidental; in fact, the themes around Tubman’s mission statement echoed throughout several performances. Poetry by Neil Hilborn, Blythe Baird and Sarah Ogutu was particularly resonant with issues of mental health and abuse.

Hilborn, a 2011 graduate of Macalester, spoke mostly of the former. His poem “The Future” described depression and disturbed cognitive functioning. His language was akin to the content of the poem: haunting and thrilling, yet oddly beautiful. As an expert in both crafting and delivering cadences of poetry, Hilborn kept the audience hooked on his every word. In a community greatly affected by issues of mental health, this message rung true. Mental instability is stigmatized too often, and Hilborn’s words open up a much-needed conversation.

But do not mistake his poems for PSAs. As well as raising awareness for mental illness, they also reveal its complexity through nuance only poetry can achieve. Hilborn does not condemn depression, nor does he celebrate those artistic icons whose brilliance seems bound up with their depression. Instead, he declares that “the sadness is my old paint under the new… I’d still be me without it, but I’d be so boring.”

Boring is the last word I’d use to describe his performance, as well as that of Sarah Ogutu. She too spoke of depression in her poem, “After the Storm.” In the aftermath of the illness and the substance abuse, she found solace in having survived “the storm.” She used this imagery to expose her personal experience, laying it bare for all to see. She addressed those who have found themselves trapped in psych wards or existential crises. And she made all her listeners aware of that suffering.

Blythe Baird, the third poet of the night, was also intent on raising awareness about a quiet suffering. She described the misogyny and sexual harassment that women withstand every day. For her, this was a personal issue. Her poem “Pocket-Sized Feminism” describes how she always stands up for women’s rights at “poetry slams or women’s studies classes,” but rarely in the real world. Others snapped along in agreement, nodding at her description of “wallpaper women” who are trained not to speak up for what they believe in.

While these three poets spoke about vastly different issues, from race to gender to mental health, their purposes in writing shared commonalities. Each poet drew from their own experiences, speaking to end the silence around hardships they have long withstood. Regardless of whether each audience member could relate to these stories, they still listened, transfixed and empathetic.

In between poetry performances, music provided a break from the heat. First, the Macalester Sirens stole the hearts of sailors and laymen alike. Their calming sound matched the interior of the tea bar, which was coffee-shop-esque. One could have easily read Ginsberg or Kerouac to the voices of these talented women. The next performance transformed the atmosphere once more, encouraging one to put down one’s book, jump up and dance.

These performers were Macalester’s own Ryan Dugan ’17 and Hannah Scout Field ’17, whose band is aptly named The Scouting Report. With Dugan on guitar and Scout Field on electric violin, the two accompanied their own vocals and harmonized with ease. Dugan later sang alongside Hank Hietala ’17, who describes his style as a cross between that of Josh Ritter and Tallest Man on Earth.

The night finished with a heartwarming story told by Anna Caroline ’18 and the polyglottic rap of Bo Kim ’17. Kim rapped about injustice while expressing her identity as a Korean-American, rapping in both English and Korean.

As the night tapered down and the caffeine wore off, crowd members murmured their contentment. The event was a tasteful mix of music and spoken word, Macalester talents and community artists. I hope to see this type of event again at Sencha or elsewhere in the Twin Cities, regardless of whether tea is involved.