Poetry in motion

Seen on stage, visiting poet Beau Sia becomes a hyperjittery oddball hurling out words and other stuff.

It’s hard to conjure up an image to contest the spectacle the Asian-American spoken word artist creates when he is in his element.

But it wasn’t always so. Sia remembers a time when he was a “timid and insecure outcast” while growing up in Oklahoma City in the US.

Sia explained his penchant for quirky antics and his plans for this year’s Urban Voices International Poetry Festival to the City Press during an interview.

Speaking on the phone from New York, where he currently lives, Sia keeps excusing himself to blow his nose. He takes deep breaths before making a statement.

Then says: “You know, I was an emotionally troubled teenager. I spent a lot of time in my room writing down my problems because I had no one to speak to at school.”

Sia was the only Asian child in his neighbourhood and felt “there weren’t enough people with faces like mine to affirm
that it was OK to be me”.

Discovering performance poetry became an act of personal liberation. “It had an immediate validating effect,” he says.

When he was 15 years old, he realised he had Asian stereotypes to confront. His comic appeal came in handy.

“I liked to hear people clapping and I’ve learnt that it’s easier to talk about uncomfortable things with people if you make them laugh,” he says.

Sia is of Chinese-Filipino descent so the sexual stereotype of the Asian male or the image of Asians as the essential worker are some of the issues he tackles in his work.

He navigates these issues with force and relishes the blow it deals his audiences. He says the aim is to test his audience’s “levels of tolerance”.

“People like to pretend that they are tolerant of other races or cultures,” he says, so his work aims to make them betray their prejudices.

In 1996 Sia began performing at the Nuyorican Poets Café, where he would earn a spot on the club’s National Poetry Slam team in that same year.

He was featured in the documentary SlamNation. The film followed him and his Nuyorican team-mates – Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore and muMs da Schemer – as they competed at the 1996 National Poetry Slam.

Sia had found his place in the world. “I did get that validation,” he says.

Sia, who is making his second visit to South Africa, says he was moved by his first experience of the land and the people in 2005. He wrote a poem about it. This and other work will form part of his set at this year’s performance.

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