Tonight, poet Darius Gardner will be performing spoken word in conjunction with the Black Arts Festival. It's one of three performances he's got scheduled this weekend.
But when we met a week ago, he was still deciding what to write and perform. It’s all part of his process.
"My thought process is 'I write 'em a week out, and I got work all day, I don't have time to revise these, I just gotta memorize them and go, and that's usually when I write my best work 'cause once you start overthinking, that's when it starts to be bad," he says. "Because now you're thinking too much as opposed to just letting the words come out the way they were meant to come out. So I usually just write 'em only a week in advance so I don't have time to revise them."
The 24 year-old first discovered his talent in middle school, when he wrote a rap about his favorite holiday – Christmas – for a school assignment. The creative environment provided more than just an academic education for Gardner.
"Our math teacher was a rapper. I think he did teaching on the side, because rapping was his main thing. He would bring us in his classroom during lunch, and he'd have all these instrumentals playing and we would just randomly freestyle, or we would have these little battles," says the Kalamazoo native. "I really started taking it seriously when I realized that I was writing a little bit better than the people in my group. And I started to listen to more music then and I started saying 'Okay, I really like this.'"
But he grew up, graduated and grew tired of rapping. He enrolled in classes at Western, and was inspired to try spoken word after a professor played a recorded performance for the class to watch.
“I was in an English class, and our professor played - he played a poet - What I remember about the poem was - one thing he did that I found interesting was he had this scroll, and he was reading the poem but you could tell it was just a prop, because you could tell he knew the poem," Gardner remembers. "And at this point, he drops it and he just goes. I remember saying 'I like that,' just that style. I'd really never heard spoken word that much up until then. So I went home, did some research on that...wrote one, performed it, and it went over really well - and I haven't had a need to go back since."
He says he's inspired by everyday occurrences - relationships, work, school. When he performs, he prefers to go from memory - and doesn't like to repeat pieces. "When you read from a piece of paper, or from you're phone, or anything onstage during a spoken word, it disengages you from your audience. You don't have as much feeling behind what you're saying because you don't remember it," he reasons. If he doesn't have a new work on hand, he finds that his poem "Bang" is a pretty reliable crowd pleaser.
Gardner would like to publish a book of his poetry one day, but worries that the reader won’t understand what he’s trying to say when it’s not live. Despite whomever is in the crowd, Gardner always makes sure to come from a place of honesty, with a goal to make both the listener - and himself - think deeper.
"I could talk about the exact same topic six times, but how can I do it differently than the last five is my thing. What I’d like people to know is that I really focus on making sure that you’re getting something fresh, something relatable – reliability is my bread and butter. If you can relate to it, then great because those are the poems people connect to.”