Sometimes a story will literally cross my path when least expected. That’s exactly what happened one recent evening sitting at Rock City Café when a young guy in his mid-20s with a flop of curly hair and a nerved-up expression motioned to one of the Rock City employees: “Is it okay? Now?”
I could tell he was about to make an announcement to the patrons of the café, which I thought had been preplanned — as if he were the hired entertainment. But it soon became clear that something was about to happen. With soft-spoken reticence, he announced over the bustle of quiet conversation and spoons clanking on cups that he was about to do a spoken-word poem in the alley if anyone cared to see it.
Maybe three people got up to follow him. I shrugged. “I’m in.”
Right time, right place.
Spoken word is a form of poetry, kind of like a stage performance, usually around some kind of social commentary. It’s the kind of impromptu street performance you see regularly in the cities or at slam poetry events, but it’s rarely done on the sidewalks of small towns.
In a sweatshirt and jeans, the poet, Matthew Wellman, stood under a spotlight in the dark alley while a friend stood apart, holding a flip cam to film him. “This is my first public performance of this poem,” Wellman explained rapidly, still nervous.
“Okay,” he cleared his throat. “Here goes.”
Suddenly, the shrinking violet dropped into fourth gear. The words that exploded out of his mouth were not vile, nor obscene. They were compelling and topical; yet, the frustration in his delivery, the way his eyes screwed tight as he dropped a boatload of verse might have appeared to unwitting passersby as though they’d stumbled across a ranting raving lunatic in the alley. It was the way his whole demeanor changed that blew people’s doors in. Gesticulating as he rhymed, his fist pumping, then carving downward like a hip-hop artist, he was here to tell us something. And you can bet your boo-tocks we were listening.
Information concentrate! It gives the means to replicate! All the emotions we used to need past the points of what the mind can see. Because a tactical advantage is often in need when the human mind can’t keep pace it would seem. So! We created systems to streamline the flow; it’s to ease the burdensome evolution of binary codes. Digital IDs are the foundation for civil integrity a combination of information and facial recognition technology.
The origins of this poem developed out of a class assignment. A student at The University of Maine in Rockland, Wellman had been taking a future studies class that required him to write an paper about any issue involving the future. Wellman, who’d grown up in Maine singing with Boy Singers of Maine and performing in several high school and college bands, decided he’d let the words jump off the paper if his professor would allow it. He wanted to write more than an essay; he wanted to discuss an issue that was very personal to him and he wanted the outcome of his efforts to be felt by an audience, not just read by a single professor. Information Concentration was born.
“Between my future studies class and my American government course, all the information just smashed together in my head and the poem just came right out,” he said. “I found writing in writing it, I was able to express myself in the same way as I’d always done writing music.”
The poem took about a month to write.
“I’ve never felt more alive than when I put everything into it,” he said.
When not in performance mode, Wellman is back to his soft-spoken self, endearingly polite and humble.
“It was very intense for me," he said. "I began to get excited about performing it in front of my class at ‘Expressions Night,’ sort of a Talent Night for the university. I had to get out of my head to do it but after, the reaction from the audience was a lot of smiles. Wide eyes. A couple people said to me: ‘You need to perform this in a bigger venue.’ ”
Evident from the first stanza, the poem tackles a relevant theme: how absorbed we are by our technological gadgets? And likewise, have they absorbed our humanity?
“I wanted to express a frustration with what seems to be an endless technological progression,” Wellman said. “It’s supposed to make us more inter-connected, more social, more human. But it’s almost as if we’re disappearing into something that connects us as much as it isolates and diminishes us. From the point you’re born, you don’t have a choice to abstain from technology. Everybody wants to feel together and connected and yet, one of the hardest things to do is to completely cut yourself off from it. It’s not a legitimate option for the average person. I only know of a few people who refuse to engage in any sort of technological connection and for them it’s like a religious calling. I feel like by artificially creating the world the world we live in socially, that we’re leaving behind something that is a fundamental part of being human.”
While he notes the irony of ultimately promoting this piece relies on the very technology that spurred it, Wellman’s plea, particularly to his own generation, is to be more aware, and less apathetic about how much one allows technology to be all-consuming.
“After this, I plan to do a series of four spoken pieces starting with Information Concentrate and really memorize it and do this out on the street," he said. And, with a knowing shrug, “it will probably end up on YouTube.”
As it is, it actually ended up on Vimeo. Here is the first night I met Matthew and the first time he performed Information Concentrate outside of Rock City Cafe.
The Killer Convo
This blog is a is a killer roundup of all arts, entertainment, brewery & distillery, food trucks, happy hour happenings in the Midcoast Maine. Feel free to email me anything about Midcoast arts, entertainment & the creative economy.