We should be excited that spoken word is reinventing literature

NYU Creative Writing alum Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s novel “Dreaming of You: A Novel in Verse” demands that literature become more of a performance.

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Susan Behrends Valenzuela

Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s work and spoken-word poetry and performance techniques in general make literature more accessible. (Staff illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

Lillian Lippold, Contributing Writer

Like many queer kids growing up these days, I was terminally on the internet from the time I was 12. Beyond the classic engagement with fandoms and media, the most surprising arena that these communities led me to was that of spoken word. My favorites slam poems on YouTube like “When Love Arrives” and “Unrequited Love in 9 Parts,” left me feeling seen in a way that every other form of media failed to do. 

Now, in the fray of viral poetry videos on YouTube, the expressive quality of spoken word that attracted me in the 2010s is being worked into the most exciting of contemporary physical novels. Spoken word throws open the doors to new writers and readers, redefining storytelling and how we think about narrative.

Most recently, NYU Master of Fine Arts alumnus Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s 2021 novel “Dreaming of You: A Novel in Verse” made me wonder about what this move towards spoken word in written literature means for contemporary fiction. I’ve been watching Lozada-Oliva’s performances since I was a YouTube-poetry-obsessed 14-year-old. She became known for Button Poetry’s video series and her chapbook “peluda.” This success led to her later publication with renowned journals as well as her residency on the podcast “Say More” with fellow Button-Poetry-famous writer Olivia Gatwood.

I hoped that Lozada-Oliva would do justice to the strangeness that her novel promised. She did not disappoint. The novel follows a young Latinx poet who brings Selena Quintanilla-Pérez back to life. Lozada-Oliva, a child of Colombian and Guatemalan immigrants, writes critically about her upbringing as a Latin-American girl in the United States and specifically how revered Mexican-American pop singer Selena’s unabashed Latinx femininity was bred into Lozada-Oliva through pop culture, her family and her friends. This engagement with Selena is direct and scathing, considering topics of sex, violence against women, gossip between women and a number of other facets of Selena’s identity that Lozada-Oliva handles thoughtfully yet critically.

The structure of Lozada-Oliva’s work is bizarre, constantly blending genre and form. In one moment, she writes a “cast of characters” list, and in the next she lays out a mock film script. A page later, she writes a horizontal poem in two voices that can be read in five different directions. She follows that with a testimonial section — four characters we have never seen before providing insightful eyewitness accounts of the revived Selena.

The reader is also often addressed directly in Lozada-Oliva’s novel, spoken to as “reader” and as the unidentified “You,” standing in for the writer’s lover at certain points. Her prose takes on the collectivizing gesture performed by spoken word performers, a technique used to bring all members of a room onto the same level of thought. This is also prominent in a piece titled “Will We Ever Stop Crying About the Dead Star,” Lozada-Oliva does just this, writing “We say we miss them but we don’t mean them. / We mean the autumn we discovered them, / when we had our headphones in and felt like we were / a movie.” The “we” encompasses every player inside the novel and out, all combined into one and presented with a beautiful performative flourish that both addresses the reader as an individual and as a conduit for the collective. Later, she writes, “I am trying to make this universal. I am trying to include You.”

Lozada-Oliva performed a passage of the novel prior to its release in early fall at an NYU Creative Writing event. Her lean into wit and comfort with conversational vulgarity thrives when spoken, along with her hand gestures, eye contact and awareness of the feeling of the room. 

The reading demonstrated how spoken word techniques make literature accessible: performance-influenced work is written to be spoken aloud. Slam poets rely more heavily on comprehension-friendly cadences that can be easily picked up by large rooms filled with audience members than traditional literature. Thus, fiction based in performance tends to be easy to read, while classical literary works are often long-winded and use syntax to gatekeep literature from readers of lower education levels.

Accessible literary works can reach a large audience of readers who will provide a broad range of interpretations. Everyone can access the new stories being told, interrogate them and decide their accuracy. Rather than writing for a faraway audience of academia, we begin to write for ourselves and for each other, creating works that accumulate and live rather than books that sit on dusty top shelves. This displacement from traditional canons leads to new ways of discussing experiences that have been silenced or ignored by Big Literature in the past.

Lozada-Oliva is not alone in this pursuit of this new prosaic form. Other notable authors and examples over the last few years are Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” Elizabeth Acevedo’s “The Poet X” and Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down” to name a few. 

Perhaps this is what we, as a literary culture, need. In an age of excessive stimulus and constant communication, the ability to create works that change at the rate that we do is an invaluable one. Performance-based writing allows literature to remain close to us and prevents us from making literary storytelling a thing of the past in the digital age.

“Dreaming of You: A Novel in Verse” can be purchased from any major book provider.

Contact Lillian Lippold at [email protected]