Two days ago, 15 artists from several years worth of Kip Fulbeck’s “ART 137: Spoken Word” course blew the minds of the 150+ audience members packed into SOhO in downtown Santa Barbara. “Talking to Strangers” was the inaugural downtown Santa Barbara event by a group of Fulbeck’s former students, Right Side Up Poets.
For those of you who didn’t attend (tsk tsk), I’ll try to recap the grandeur of the show. First of all, finding SOhO is like traveling through secretive European alleyways. The restaurant is nestled into the second floor of the Victorian Court behind State Street, between W. Victoria and Chapala. Although hard to find, it is a gem. Once inside, one is greeted by rustic brick walls, abstract paintings, simple blue tablecloths, girls in scarves and a stage illuminated by the soft dewy glow of incandescent light bulbs.
The closest seats to the stage were around dinner tables, where guests could dine and take in the show. SOhO’s menu is impeccable; it’s all organic food from local Santa Barbara farmers and fishermen. Kale salad tossed with pumpkin seeds and tamari, lightly blackened salmon served over couscous with summer vegetables and filet mignon with a pinot noir demi-glaze, just to name a few — yum. I ordered the pesto pasta with pine nuts and creamy goat cheese. It made my mouth dance.
But let’s get on with the show itself. Art professor Kip Fulbeck was MC for the night, opening up with a warm welcome. “What you are going to see is stuff [these artists] have all written themselves,” Fulbeck said. “It’s based entirely on truth, personal narratives, things that have actually happened in their lives. It might get PG-13 at times but that’s okay right? You guys with x’s on your hands will just have to deal.”
The “x’s” marked the underage audience members (and, surprisingly, several performers, who ranged in age from 20 to 24).
And what a PG-13 night it was! Rated R might have been a more appropriate term, actually, which isn’t a bad thing for a State Street crowd of 20-somethings. Many of the stories alluded to sexual relationships of some sort. Alison Green and Kevin Ferguson did a duet piece exemplifying the differences between men and women when it comes to “the right time” to get it on with a new partner. Green and Ferguson’s contrasting lines often overlapped each other, which added to the hilarity. At one point, a frustrated Green asked, “Why can’t you just take me out on a date first! Then we can go to second base!” to which an equally exasperated Ferguson complained, “My credit card says that I bought you Freebirds last Saturday.”
Reannan Last explained how Disney movies are to blame for her strange sex fantasies. In a coy manner, Last described how the large-chested, small-waisted, half-naked female Disney princesses made her want to emulate their “breathy” existences.
But not all of the pieces were so sexually charged. Some artists performed about other aspects of their self identity. Ryan Yamamoto did a performance on the struggles of ethnic categorization. He explained how he didn’t want to be branded as black or white; how he’s actually a quarter German, a quarter Italian, and half Japanese (“And for the Second World War, y’all have my humblest apologies …”).
Eddie Perez did a piece for his community, “La Raza.” Perez proudly proclaimed that he was the first out of his entire extended family to attend a university. At the same time he spoke with a sense of urgency about how he wished he saw more Hispanics in his classes at UCSB, and touching on the fact that, for a city and campus that draw so heavily on Spanish history and names, we still have a far way to go before we are truly diverse.
Jinling Huo did an astonishing performance about her struggles as a Chinese woman who is branded only as a Chinese woman. In a voice exploding with pure catharsis, Huo exclaimed how she has studied French and Arabic, rides a skateboard and loves Iron Man way more than she’s ever been into the anime show InuYasha. And, she is a huge fan of cheese. “Fan” might be an understatement. Huo is a cheese- addict. One of the piece’s high points was when Huo described the many ways in which she steals cheese from stores and casually pulled out a hunk of Pepper Jack from under her arm.
Still, many other pieces involved very personal qualms and ideas. Audience members got to peer into the soul of Christina Blackwell, who spoke in one passionate and moving piece about a hardship-filled childhood and how Jesus saved her and in another, more humorous piece about how she would really like to not be single forever. Demi Anter performed a piece called “Half,” a play on the fact that her name means “half” in French, full of one-liners like, “You know when you Google your really attractive T.A. and find out he once won second place in a Midwestern turnip eating contest? You know when you buy turnips the next day?” Jessica Oropesa and Carissa Zavada highlighted the modern woman’s infatuation with makeup in a funny duet piece. It seems audience members got to peer into the souls of all the artists, really, graduates and current students alike.
And then there were the pieces that made audience members cry with laughter. Mel Rosenberg illustrated how her life was a movie and that she was going to make edits to go from awkward and PG to super sexy, “crazy tough” and Rated R. Sergio Salazar voiced his almost- creepy love for thighs in a piece that had everyone giggling with his slightest move (the least slight of which was a full on nip-slip). Teagan Miller, Fey Cha and Oropesa — though graduates now living in Kentucky, the Bay and San Diego — once again took the roles of procrastinating college kids and showed the process of writing an essay, including the sudden urges to wash all the dishes in the house, the necessity of coffee and the joys of adjustable margins.
Jared Desmond Wilder presented a mock-infomercial on “How to be a Man.” According to Wilder, men should insert “Man” into everything they say to diversify their “Manabulary” (“It’s not that hard … man.”). He also recommended peeing on everything because it tells people where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to, like Facebook.
After the show, I got to talk to Perez and Huo — a couple off-stage and onstage in their adorable duet performance that combined anecdotes and original song snippets ranging from punk rock to sultry to Mariachi style — about their performances and how they summon up the courage to perform.
“People are always saying, ‘Oh my God, you’re so brave, how do you do that, I can’t even speak in class.’ And it’s totally understandable, I was that way too,” Huo said. “My throat would constrict, I’d get all sweaty. I’m just like everyone else. But I took the class on faith knowing from Kip’s reputation that he was serious stuff. Really, it’s all about you: you pushing yourself, you setting the bars higher for yourself. You being able to say, ‘Screw it! I’m going to do this.’”
All in all, “Talking to Strangers” was a night of performance, prose and professionalism. SOhO provided a cozy atmosphere in which the talented, artistic community of UCSB (and beyond) was allowed to flourish for a few brilliant hours. These artists stomped on the stigma that poetry is lame. For the 150+ friends and “strangers” there last Tuesday, poetry was revitalized as an alluring (and tasty) form of self- expression.
I think it’s safe to assume that at the end of it all, there was a room full of people inspired by these artists to go home and write their own spoken word pieces. Now, that is a powerful evening.
For information on upcoming events, performance videos and more, check out RSU at www.rightsideuppoets.com or LIKE them on FB at www.facebook.com/rightsideuppoets.
RSU members Ryan Yamamoto and Demi Anter will perform next at a free event put on by the MCC at Muddy Waters on Thursday, Nov. 29, headlined by the renowned spoken word artist Mayda Del Valle.
A version of this article appeared on page 6 of November 15, 2012’s print edition of the Nexus.