Every day on the University of Wisconsin campus, students shuffle past one another, barely glancing up from their iPhones to say hello to fleeting acquaintances from their chemistry discussion. This isn’t always the case, but oftentimes it is. Despite our constant inundation with updates from friends and family members via social media sites, very little is being said and, more than that, even less is being heard. Incredibly honest things happen every day on this campus among the blather. Love, loss, depression — these thoughts and many more may be squirming inside the head of the person sitting next to you in a lecture of 200 students. Who’s talking about it, though?
This past Tuesday night I found a moment of safety in the presence of spoken word poet Caroline Rothstein. Don’t be fooled by her infectious laugh, warm smile or gentle eyes — Rothstein is a powerhouse of female force capable of unleashing a verbal torrent within seconds of opening her mouth. Rothstein was hosted by the Campus Women’s Center. According to Alice Bradley, the Center’s outreach coordinator, Rothstein was invited to showcase her work for its emphasis on “mental well-being and social justice” and to facilitate a dialogue centered on the “importance of taking care of oneself psychologically and emotionally.” Rothstein’s personal story is not an easy one. She has experienced the discomfort of discrimination for being Jewish. She has also dealt with the incredible pain of violation, having been molested as an adolescent and raped her first year in college as well as the loss of a loved one, as her brother died a week after she was raped. She also coped with the struggle of self-affirmation, having endured an eating disorder which spanned over a decade.
Caroline’s poetry reverberated throughout the small dark paneled room in Memorial Union Tuesday night. Her fierce determination to be heard and to hear others created an atmosphere of defiance, strength and alliance. In a prelude to her performance she stressed the bond that would exist after our collective experience, establishing a fervent energy of love and compassion within minutes of meeting us. Her poetry spanned from outraged reprobations of those who had wronged her or insulted her sense of justice to stories of addiction. Caroline performed an incredible poem, which was a response to a poet who expressed the desire to make love to a raped woman. She began with a jolt: “To the poet who said he wanted to make love to a raped woman, ride with me. Up the elevator to my dormitory high rise, take your shoes off.” From there she launched into an emotional narrative of destruction and disrespect but, as she said, you cannot “tattoo ‘victim’ to my body.”
Caroline captivates attention easily with her voice and her words, but she could care less about the spotlight. She wields her voice as a weapon for social justice and hopes to establish an environment in which others are emboldened to speak out and experience love. During the middle of her performance she opened the floor for question and answer, inviting the audience to ask her anything. The crowd did, and she gave genuine, thoughtful responses. People began unloading and breathing in what could only be called a place of healing. She thanked us, and we thanked her for talking and, more importantly, for listening.