Originally published in The California Aggie
It’s Tuesday night, and the Memorial Union’s Griffin Lounge has been transformed. The chairs are facing a small stage outfitted with three microphones and bright lights. Crowds of students and locals sporting horn-rimmed glasses and sweatshirts rush to find seats as a DJ spins ’90s hip hop music. A voice rises above the din.
“I was baptized in the spit left on floors of abandoned stages/See my holy books rhyme/And five times a day, I lick the ink off their pages/Inject the black ammunition deep into my veins and/Now my tongue is stained with poetic cadence,” recites SickSpits member Mannie Rizvi, hands gesturing to the beat. “Rhymes tight because I’m Abel but they’re sinful like I’m Cain and/I’m bleeding rivers of lyrical drops/Leaving your heavens looking like wastelands.”
As she reaches the breathless finish, the crowd chants back, “Spit sick, po-ET!”
This is SickSpits, a UC Davis poetry collective whose members find that those passions and rages inside you are best summed up in free-form prose spoken with the all the emphatic rhythms of a rapper – and in front of a crowd, no less.
“Stage poetry as opposed to page poetry is more of a dialogue. That’s my favorite distinction,” said Rizvi, a sophomore international relations and sociology double major. “The poet shares their own art but also takes something back from the audience, forming a connection.”
SickSpits was born out of iLL-literacy, a poetry collective founded at UC Davis in 2000. After four core members of the group decided to take iLL-literacy on tour in 2004, the remaining poets set up SickSpits in its place.
Today, SickSpits consists of core members Rizvi, Alex Gonzalez and Jordan Schaub, and is currently working on recruiting additional poets through its open mic nights. Open mic nights are held at 7:30 p.m. in Griffin Lounge on the first Tuesday of the month.
Rizvi began searching for a poetry group as soon as she arrived for her freshman year at UC Davis.
“I’m from the Bay Area, where there’s a pretty heavy spoken word scene. I was scared of coming to Davis and losing that part of me,” Rizvi said. “I was asking people about it when I heard there’s a group called SickSpits on campus.”
Senior sociology and technocultural studies double major Gonzalez joined SickSpits after attending poetry workshops taught by iLL-literacy’s founder. Though he competed in national slam poetry competitions, Gonzalez became jaded by his fellow competitors’ focus on winning, rather than on the craft of poetry.
“Now my poetry is much more spoken word than anything else. It’s free verse; sometimes I rhyme, sometimes I don’t,” he said. “I tend to write about life experience and everyday occurrences and what I see walking down the street.”
SickSpits’ third member, Sacramento City College sociology major Schaub, first learned about the group after hearing them perform at a Nourish International event. Too shy to perform onstage herself, Schaub attended open mic nights for months before finally “spitting” her own work.
“I was writing on the DL and I was like, I’m never getting up there, like f- that, I’m not getting up there. But it’s really inclusive and I felt really comfortable,” Schaub said.
SickSpits performs at events such as Whole Earth Festival, Women Take Back the Night, and even house parties. They also host a yearly event called The Movement, a spoken word and arts showcase that honors the four pillars of hip hop: MCing, DJing, break dancing and graffiti.
But their main draw is the monthly open mic night, where anyone can sign up to perform their poetry or music in front of an audience. On Tuesday, a mixed group of students and locals gathered to hear poets speak of lost love and racism, while others strummed their guitars and sang original songs.
Loud cheers and whoops followed every performance, and in SickSpits tradition, many snapped their fingers at particularly moving lyrics.
“It’s definitely not one-sided. People are feeding off of each other’s art,” Rizvi said. “It’s an exchange. I think an open mic is a really democratic mechanism.”
That’s not to say open mics haven’t attracted some strange characters over the years. Gonzalez recalled one poet who took the idea of spoken word to a somewhat disgusting new level.
“At some point in his poem he says something along the lines of, ‘I feel your pain, all these ladies who have been called bitch,’ and then he starts biting on a blood capsule, and it starts dripping down on his white shirt,” Gonzalez said.
But those occurrences are few and far between, and Gonzalez has found that the audience is often able to relate to the poet’s words. Having people come up to him to tell him they appreciated his poem is the ultimate reward.
SickSpits provides a unique space for members of the Davis community to come together and share each other’s art. After all, the human experience is universal, Gonzalez said.
“For me it’s a way of getting my emotions out and sometimes figuring things out in my own mind. It’s a very introspective process,” he said. “If I’m ever dealing with something or something is stressing me out, I find that the best way to really be pensive about it is to sit and write.”
Performing poetry with SickSpits not only allowed Schaub to express her emotions, frustrations and joys, but also gave her a newfound confidence in herself.
“I can’t believe what a big difference it made just actually making myself get up there and do that, just being able to be comfortable in myself and be like, wow, I just put my frickin’ soul out there for everyone to feel and hear,” she said.