As the crowd slowly filled up to a standing-room-only capacity in the main reading room last Friday, the anticipation before Henry Mills’s poetry performance Helicopters and Vultures grew with them. Mills' performance followed Tala Rahmeh, a 23-year old Palestinian native. Rahmeh read a series of poems concerning her childhood experiences in the war-torn refugee community. She was introduced as a poet with very "physical" poems, and that became apparent almost immediately as she started to describe her experiences in the war-torn region in tangible, olfactory detail.
Rahmeh recited her poems with a deep, solemn voice, and moved through them at the pace of a slowly rolling Hearse. Mills provided a sharp change of pace, launching into his initial poem with a vociferous intensity enhanced by the musical accompaniment from DJ Fleg.
Mills recited using a broad variety of tones, shifting between large-scale meditations on the civil war in El Salvador and the conflict between Israel and Palestine, to personal reflections on his family, and humorous accounts of professional wrestling and his parents non-verbal relationship, to grim and heartfelt poems about his mothers illegal emigration to America and his Jewish grandfathers pain-ridden life.
He was introduced as a "performance poet", and he lived up to the classification, blending jazz, Latin American folk and rap into his poems while frequently conversing with the large audience and calling for their participation.
As his electric (both literally and metaphorically) performance unfolded, comparisons between his and Rahmeh’s style sprang unbidden to my mind. Both were poets, reciting poems. Both spoke of displaced peoples and traumatic experiences in foreign lands, yet both used decidedly different mediums to express it. Rahmeh’s slow, vivid language clashed noticeably with Mills’ loud, fiery, occasionally indiscernible rhymes (and not just the lines that were in Spanish).
But what did this mean? I asked myself after I, and everyone else in attendance had clapped wildly for both poets. Was this simply a matter of old against new? Of conventional against unconventional? The only evidence I can garner from the event last Friday night that presupposes any answer was that the capacity crowd applauded both of them. They are both poets. They both read poetry, and they both independently captivated me with it.
Henry Gass attends McGill University and is one of our summer interns working in the Publications and Communications department.