By Sofia Ferrandiz
Venessa Marco’s wide smile and energetic hand gestures were the first things one noticed about the twenty-five year-old, Cuban slam poet and activist seated in the corner of Birch Coffee shop on East 27th St. and Park Avenue. Marco’s multicolored, floral snapback hat, containing a head full of wild and abundant, light brown tight curls, was the only thing holding anything back. She unapologetically challenged the quieter ambience surrounding her while she chatted on the phone with a friend.
Marco ended her call abruptly to lean over the small, wooden table and give a tight, electrifying embrace.
“I’m going to Cuba in three weeks on the 7th to celebrate the anniversary of my grandmother’s death,” she abruptly stated. “We have to honor life.”
Marco squinted her light colored eyes as she smiled.
“So, watchu wanna know?”
What most people know is Marco’s attention-raising performance of “Patriarchy” at the Women of the World Poetry competition in Austin, Texas last May, which had more than half a million views on YouTube alone, receiving press coverage from The Huffington Post and Bustle.com, among others publications.
“He said ‘you look like the kind of girl who can swallow’/Who can make a man forget that his girl can’t do certain things”
–opening lines of Patriarchy by Venessa Marco
But that is only a small part of her story. The grad school student in the PhD Creative writing/poetry track at Columbia University is focusing on branding her image as a feminist, Afro-Latina slam poet worldwide through different platforms–in person, on paper, and online. She is organizing her first, international spoken word tour after having toured nation-wide, is publishing a collection of her poetry this year with Penmanship Books, and is also uploading videos online of her performances to reach greater audiences.
“You can’t let what you know you deserve walk away from you,” Marco confidently asserted.
Since she was three, migration has been a regular theme in Marco’s life, shaping elements of her future poetry, and an over all globally-conscious outlook from a young age. Marco was born in Cuba to a Cuban father and Puerto Rican mother. The family moved when she was three-years-old to Puerto Rico, due to financial circumstances. At the age of 18, Marco left her family in Puerto Rico to move to Los Angeles to be closer to her American relatives.
It was in L.A. where she was first challenged by Western-labels that tried to define her based on her physical appearance (a lighter, mocha-skin complexion, and perceived “African-American” hair texture). It was also the city where she secured a passion for slam poetry at Da Poetry Lounge, a small, slam poetry venue in Hollywood.
“The reason I fell in love with poetry is that it gives you the liberty to write out your hurt,” she said.
After bringing her younger brother to a show, who was in town visiting from Puerto Rico, she initially considered giving poetry-writing a shot.
“He told me, ‘you grew up in the hood. You’ve gotta share,’” she remembers.
But, Shihan the Poet (one of her idols from VH1’s Def Poetry Jam and a regular host at Da Poetry Lounge) told her more female voices were needed in the male-heavy, spoken word industry. That sold her.
Maeve Brophy, 21, a frequent attendee at Da Poetry Lounge and friend of Venessa’s remembers the passionate political talks that the two of them would have along with one of Venessa’s cousins, when all were teenagers in L.A.
“We had a variety of different opinions and weren’t afraid to question/challenge each other in discussion,” Brophy commented on Facebook.
Marco endured the competitive process to become a member of Da Poetry Lounge’s team and for five years slammed at the venue.
In 2012 Marco moved to New York City to be a part of the city’s significant poetry scene. She continues to spit poems related to her internationally diverse experiences as a woman of color.
“Speaking of where I’m from is a conversation that I have every day,” she said. “There’s so much stripping that happens here in the process of assimilating. I’m very proud of my African and Latin descent.”
Marco competed and made the 2013 Nuyorican Poets Café Slam team in the East Village, and was offered the opportunity to publish her works with Penmanship Books, the performance poetry publishing company founded by Nuyorican Poets Café program curator, Mahogany Browne.
Whereas Marco mainly used poetry in her earlier career as an opportunity to solely communicate personal narratives, in recent years she’s turned to issues of race, politics, and gender–and successfully has garnered a wider fan base due to her online presence.
“The viral popularity of spoken word videos like Venessa’s works “Patriarchy” and “Khaleesi,” which she wrote and performs with Tonya Ingram, allows poetry that is socially and politically potent to impact thousands of viewers who would never have encountered such work otherwise,” said Daniel Gallant, Executive Director of The Nuyorican Poets Café.
“Patriarchy” addresses a personal experience of sexual harassment one night by a man in a New York City bodega.
“…He said, ‘you look like the kind of girl who can swallow/ Who can make a man forget that his girl can’t do certain things,” Venessa’s opening lines from “Patriarchy” state.
“In an attempt to respond, I thought, ‘irrational of me to be both woman and hungry/To confuse myself with the kind of person who has rights/ To be woman and house a body is to break all the floors/ Is to know most men think your mouth a door/Think your mouth always open…” her poem continues.
Marco’s willingness to disrupt preconceived notions of how women of color poets express themselves sets her work apart and secures her strong fan base.
“When newness and freshness are lacking, the content and message overlap, becomes tiresome sounding, and flattens feminism as a movement turning it into a genre of poetry with a formula,” said Jeanelle Delkhaste, 21, a long-time fan of Marco’s and self-identifying, “Person Of Color” female poet.
“To witness Venessa avoid unintentionally or intentionally falling into this person-of-color female feminist category, which is a Thing with a capital T in the poetry community, makes me happy, satisfied, and inspired,” she added.
Marco’s self-awareness allows her to continuously address the daily, social iniquities faced by women of color in a provocative and eloquent manner.
“I don’t believe in writer’s block, but I do believe in fear and emotional block,” Marco said taking final sips from her coffee before packing her backpack to relocate to Starbucks for their free Wi-Fi.
“The message is more important than what people are going to say,” she said. “If I can touch a young girl and say ‘your feelings are valid,’ then that’s enough for me.”