Speaking up

Jocelyn Barnes grew to love Grand Rapids through open mic nights.
Jocelyn Barnes uses her voice to find healing through self-reflection and as a catalyst for activism. Photo by Teri Genovese

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

As a dedicated spoken word artist, Jocelyn Barnes uses her voice and platforms to find healing through self-reflection and as a catalyst for activism. She was recently named as a host for The Drunken Retort and communications lead for the Diatribe.

The Drunken Retort is an open mic series that originated in Grand Rapids in 2013. Held every Monday night at Stella’s Lounge (during pre-COVID-19 times), the series is notorious for attracting talented spoken word artists, stand-up comedians, short story writers, musicians and more.

The Diatribe, led by a group of nontraditional teaching artists, facilitates afterschool programs, assemblies and creative writing workshops rooted in poetry. It aims to empower students to learn about societal issues such as fair housing practices, toxic masculinity and racism while providing a space to have conversations surrounding mental health awareness, identity, grief and loss. Its goal is for students to learn to harness the power of radical vulnerability as they share their stories in a rhetorically compelling way.

Grand Rapids Magazine: Given the current pandemic, how has The Drunken Retort been operating the series?

Jocelyn Barnes: We’ve been doing a monthly show on Zoom. Given social distancing concerns, we’re not sure when we can bring the show back to Stella’s. Going forward, we plan on making some changes to make it more accessible to people. Our goal is to set up a live stream experience so as many people can experience
it as possible.

GRM: How did you first get involved with the Retort?

JB: A friend of mine had gone to the show and invited me to it. … It’s kind of a life-changing show, seeing people come together and join in this ritual of listening to each other. It’s fun because while there are some really talented performers, we also have regulars that show up and don’t necessarily share. Often the people who are the loudest encouragers in the room are the people who don’t really do art in any sense. They just come back for the community. We have a long-running joke that it’s kind of like church except it’s on Monday nights and you can drink.

GRM: What do you think makes the community at the Retort so special to so many people?

JB: A large part of our audience has had difficult experiences at church — especially those that grew up in West Michigan. Rachel Gleason, one of the Retort’s founders, has talked about growing up in a church that was cult-like. My experience wasn’t necessarily as extreme. I went to a regular Christian Reformed Church [and] never felt like I fit in. I think that’s something a lot of people at the Retort feel. We have a lot of misfits in our bunch. They’re not necessarily there because they’re poetry fans. I think they’re just moved by the power of someone speaking their truth. Having a safe space to share things is necessary — especially as an adult. There are lots of opportunities for youths to do that but there aren’t exactly places for grown men to be vulnerable in front of a group of active listeners.

GRM: What makes you so passionate about the work you do with both The Drunken Retort and the Diatribe?

JB: I’ve lived in GR my whole life and never felt as welcome or as home as I did in the backroom of a bar. It’s really ironic because, before that, I was planning on moving away to Seattle or another city. Retort made me fall in love with GR. The Diatribe, on the other hand, has made me believe in the future of GR. Working with youth is super inspiring because I get to see these people grow into themselves and have a firm grasp of their voices because of the work we do. We get messages pretty often from students saying, “Hey, you don’t really know me. You did an assembly at our school, but you inspired me to be the best version of myself.”

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