“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
On a rainy Thursday evening in March amid compounding concerns of the COVID-19 about fifty people watched the formerly New York-based Catholic spoken word poet Clare McCallan perform. The show took place at Spacebar-- a former warehouse turned co-working office space located southwest of downtown Grand Rapids, Mi. that also hosts artists and musicians.
Spoken word poetry has a broad definition and attempts to democratize the classic idea of poetry, which is now perceived as elitist or comprehensible only to a few. Although poetry is meant to be heard, as the name suggests, spoken word poetry focuses heavily on the oral and performative aspects of the craft. McCallan encourages audience interaction and people could be heard laughing, “ahh-ing” in agreement, and snapping their fingers throughout the performance. Spoken word artists are known for their demonstrative displays of emotion and controversial topic choices. These characteristics make it so that many are surprised that McCallan is attempting to carve out a Catholic space in the genre.
This is a concern to which McCallan is sympathetic. Many of McCallan’s secular artist friends are scrupulous about speaking “their truth,” but few recognize Truth in the Catholic sense. Ultimately, their end goal is entertainment. Further, spoken word poetry is often associated closely with rap music that has its own set of negative connotations. McCallan explained, “The spoken word scene is [perceived as] a small tumour on the side of the huge rap scene, and whether it is poetry or rap almost 70 percent of the time what I am listening to I don’t agree with. Some of it really really bothers me especially when you get into the rap scene. A lot of it can be derogatory towards women… promoting guns and drugs… so that can be kind of painful, seeing people use gifts for the wrong things.”
As a Catholic, she has a different set of standards. McCallan explained, “Catholic art has to meet all three of the transcendentals. So it has to be true, beautiful, and good… If [my work] doesn’t hit all three of those, then I don’t propagate it. I don’t share it because I think that I as a Catholic artist have a responsibility to my audience. I also am of the belief that all work in order for it to be true has to be hopeful in some way because hope is the ultimate truth.”
Despite some of the difficulties of being a Catholic artist in a mostly secular artform, she feels called to continue her work and sees spoken word art in general as an excellent tool for the new evangelization.
“Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
McCallan traces her journey into spoken word poetry to the summer before her senior year of college at Franciscan University of Steubenville. That summer she did, in McCallan’s words, the, “very stereotypical backpacking alone through Europe thing,” which ignited her passion for travel. She returned to finish her bachelor’s degree in business while she and a friend began a blog about traveling on a budget that eventually took them on a winter vacation to Costa Rica. This was her first real foray into writing.
After graduating, she transitioned into writing more substantive pieces about her life experiences and short fictional narratives. During this time, she travelled and lived in different parts of the United States and even Calcutta, India where she spent time with St. Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity. In Calcutta, she initially took serious interest in spoken word poetry while she was bedridden with typhus.
McCallan believes spoken word poetry allows people to connect in unique ways. “To me it’s a very interpersonal artform and a connective artform because… my favorite thing, often to my audience’s dismay and discomfort, my favorite thing is to hold eye contact during my show. It is one of those rare forms of art where… you can really communicate with the people with zero distraction. There’s no one else up there with me. It’s… me talking in a way that is very intentionally supposed to be emotionally effective… It’s a very direct art of communication,” McCallan explained.
After Calcutta, she moved to New York City where she began performing at open mics at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, one of the world's most famous spots for spoken word poetry. Here, she had to get to the cafe hours before the event to reserve a five minute slot. She said she was visibly shaking throughout her first performance and for two hours afterwards, but she continued going back. While in New York, she was also working a variety of jobs including a retail position and as a director of religious education at a Catholic parish.
This past July, she discerned that God was calling her to spoken word poetry full time. She toured through different parts of the country with her work. She also lived in Plain, Washington for an artist residency where she created and memorized the performance for the Grand Rapids show. Being an poet full time came with a host of trials. McCallan stated, “There was an order of what would have to be sacrificed in order to make this dream a reality. And the first thing was a semblance of a social life, not that I had that much of it, but what I did have got thrown out. And then… not getting your nails done anymore, you’re not going to get your hair done anymore, you’re not going to buy clothes anymore, all your money needs to go to this. And then came time to quit the salaried job… And then came time to leave all the babysitting gigs and the dog walking… and then the last big sacrifice this required was getting rid of the apartment.”
Following the performance, she was heading to Boston and then supposed to be working on a poetry installation in Virginia.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1).
McCallan’s current tour is called “A Saturday Night Alone” and grapples with issues related to loneliness. Some of the pieces she performed focus on biblical characters dealing with isolation resulting from the mission God gave them such as Noah building the ark. The perspective in these often bounce between that of the biblical character and McCallan’s own life experiences. In this way, she demonstrates how the message of these biblical stories can infuse our lives today regardless of vast time and cultural distances between them.
Though loneliness can be a heavy topic, McCallan stayed true to her artistic standards and always allowed hope to have the final word. She encouraged audience members to invest in community and explained how shared service provides a strong foundation for bringing people together. Her work as a whole and the particular performance echoed St. John Paul II’s consistent message throughout his potificate to, “Be not afraid!”
While some may imagine that Catholicism would provide an assortment of roadblocks to being a spoken word poet, she sees her faith as a guiding light and inspiration for her work: “I just think that [Catholics] have the best cheat sheet ever with the transcendentals. [My work] does not need to rhyme, it doesn’t need to fit a schematic element. It just needs to be true, beautiful, and good.”
More info on McCallan can be found at her website: https://www.claremccallan.com/