Nathan Richardson strides up to the microphone at the Hampton Performing & Creative Arts Center with the confidence of a king. Unlike everyone else at today’s open mic, he carries no papers to read from. He is a “spoken word” artist, meaning he memorizes and recites his poems with flair, their essence conveyed by more than their words—by the modulation of his voice, by the actions he plays out in front of the crowd, by the raw emotion plainly visible on his face. This form is also called “performance poetry” or, to use the vernacular, “spitting at the mic.”
Tonight, Richardson recites his poem, “I am the Pause Between Notes,” a choice he made only moments before. He never plans what he’ll perform before entering a venue. Instead, he arrives early to scope it out, study the décor, talk to people and get a sense of its vibe. “I don’t come with a plan because I don’t want it to sound stale,” he explains. “Something I see or something that pops up in conversation will inspire me to recite a particular poem. I want it to be the right poem at the right time with the right crowd.”
Easy enough to do when choosing from three or four poems. But Richardson has 60 to 70 tucked in the back pocket of his brain. He uses several memorization techniques so that poems can spill off his tongue with seeming ease, but it’s still a lot of work. On long trips, he’ll test himself by reciting one poem after another. And when he finds himself stumbling over a passage, he’ll incorporate what he calls the “burn technique,” isolating the troublesome spot and repeating it 25 to 50 times until it burns into his memory. Every morning as he washes up, he recites a poem that he hasn’t visited in a while, and every night he speaks to God through verse.
“I actually use poetry as prayer,” he says. “So, while some people might be more formal and traditional in their prayers, I will recite poetry at night. That’s my way of meditating, of praying.”
He begins tonight’s recitation with a placid expression on his face. “I am the Pause Between Notes,” he says slowly in his honeyed baritone. As he rattles off a litany of metaphoric paused moments, his tempo steadily picks up and his volume rises. “I am the meditation, the prayer, the noticeable silence. The irony of knowledge between heartbeats, between lovers. After the hug, before the kiss, the look. A stare between enemies, I am a ceasefire. The space between penance, I am peace.”
The lines are now cascading upon each other like breakers on the shore, slamming into the crowd as he stabs the air for emphasis. “I am Mars,” he howls, “Venus, man, woman, a short leap, a light year.”
And then he pauses, audibly breathing into the mic, casting his gaze around the room. When he speaks again, his pace is as slow as a creeping shadow, his voice lowered to a near whisper. The room sits in hushed fascination as he finishes. “I am fear of consequence. I am the hope that even the inconsequential has value.”
As he walks back to his seat, the applauding audience is left gasping. Richardson has led them on a rollicking ride, and they need to catch their collective breath. Once the night wraps up, other poets flock to him. “How do you do it?” they want to know.
The most frequent tip he offers to spoken-word poets is to eschew the need to scream everything in a rant, to remember that quiet moments carry weight too. “If the words call for a certain emotion,” he says, “then of course you want to give that emotion. But if the words don’t call for loudness then you shouldn’t try to be loud. You should really be faithful to the word, to the meaning, and to the emotion you have on the page.”
These days, Richardson performs his own poetry just enough to prevent what he’s memorized from escaping his mind. His primary focus has turned elsewhere. He now devotes his time traveling to schools and other venues throughout the East Coast to perform as Frederick Douglass, inhabiting the persona of the renowned former slave, abolitionist, poet and orator. Portraying such an iconic figure is not something Richardson takes lightly.
“It takes a lot of research, a lot of study, a lot of practice to be able to walk into a room and have people actually believe you are this other person,” he says. “You have to sacrifice other things, surrender whatever time you might give to other projects. If I was going to do it, I wasn’t going to do it halfway. So, once I came to grips with that, then I just poured myself into it.”
His show varies slightly depending upon the venue. At the Woman’s Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., he excerpted a Douglass speech on woman’s suffrage. And on his many classroom visits, he asks the children what books they’re reading and then recites a poem from a 19th century textbook. Regardless of the event, he shows up dressed as Frederick Douglass, performs some of Douglass’s speeches or poems and then opens it up for questions from the audience, which is always the riskiest portion of his show. That is where his knowledge is fully tested, oftentimes by a smartphone-wielding individual intent on showing him up.
“The first thing I had to do was understand his intent,” Richardson says. “Before I could start memorizing dates and places and all that kind of stuff, I really had to understand the person and what his intent was, what his heart was. As long as I remain true to that, the audience will grant me a little wiggle room with my replies. I’m approaching 100 performances now in all kinds of venues. And every time I’m teaching the audience a little bit about history, they are teaching me how to be Douglass.”
Nathan Richardson performs the Frederick Douglass poem The Parody: