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Verbal Mayhem encourages Rutgers students to raise their voices, share art

Verbal Mayhem, a poetry club at Rutgers, has been offering a safe space for students for more than 20 years. – Photo by @verbalmayhem / Instagram

If you're looking for a safe space to share poetry and other creative works, Verbal Mayhem welcomes you to join its community of creative thinkers. 

Verbal Mayhem, founded at Rutgers in 2001, has evolved from a small group of passionate students to a thriving organization with a diverse membership. The organization has made its stamp as the largest and longest-running open mic organization in New Jersey.

Herrin Fontenette, a School of Arts and Sciences junior and treasurer of Verbal Mayhem, spoke to The Daily Targum about the organization's achievements and the progress it has made. 

"We flourished into a community for all students of all backgrounds — all artists, specifically — to showcase their talent and showcase their work," she said.

The club, a Black-centered, multicultural community of free spoken word, meets weekly on Wednesday nights at Van Dyck Hall in Room 211 on the College Avenue campus. The general public and the club's members are welcome to present their work. 

“Anytime somebody comes up to perform — if it’s something very vulnerable, something very commercial, be it a rap — we clap. We give them applause," Fontenette said. "We validate their experience. We validate their performance."

Weekly meetings consist of a panel of pre-scheduled performers presenting pieces that correlate to the theme of the week. Throughout February, meeting topics included "Valentine's Day" and "Hot Takes."

Verbal Mayhem dedicated the month to celebrating Black history — the organization worked with Rutgers NAACP to host a "Black Creatives" event and a "Spoken Word Night."  

The organization also collaborates with other cultural-based organizations like the Center for Latino Arts and Culture, the Rutgers Puerto Rican Student Organization and the Douglass Black Students' Congress.

Prior to becoming an official club at Rutgers, Verbal Mayhem began as a small gathering of students and members of the New Brunswick community who wanted to express themselves through open mic. Since then, the group has experienced massive growth, even in the face of dwindling attendance brought about by COVID-19.

"Since I joined in the latter end of my freshman year, I've seen our numbers go from maybe 20 people to 70," Fontenette said. "There have been some nights where this room … (has) been filled to the brim with not only students but with community partners."

Michael Rodriguez, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, is a co-host for the organization — one of his responsibilities is to foster audience engagement.

"(Verbal Mayhem is) a fun space. It can be a serious place. It's a familial space. It's just a secure place where anyone can come and be themselves and share their art," Rodriguez said. "Not everyone has that community, so the goal is to be that community."

As a host, Rodriguez also acknowledges where the club came from, which comes in the form of a spiel at the beginning of every meeting. This serves as an essential reminder to the performers that they are heard.

“Having that at the beginning was very important for creating that sense of safety," Rodriguez said. "It is a long history of young people of color, young marginalized communities coming up and sharing their stories in a space … It's rare to have that freedom to be able to speak freely."

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