“If you’ve never been to a spoken-word event, you might think it’s like Shakespeare or boring. There’s no limit when it comes to poetry. You’re not confined to a stereotype, a beat, a topic or even a length. You’re not a slave to how many bars you have to do. I didn’t have to worry about maintaining some kind of image. You can do whatever you want to do. You’re absolutely free.”Scott Free, Houston Poet
P.E.N.S. is a journey through the vibrant poetry community of Houston, Texas, one that shines a spotlight on the artists who define the scene. Many of these artists don’t make a living with their art, but that doesn’t matter. What they seek is the ability to express truth through spoken word. Poets speak truth to power (feminism, systemic racism, the nature of living in America), truths about their lives (parenthood, employment, social situations), truths about the power of the practice of poetry. This is a community of peers who encourage one another. Some take their art to professional levels, working competitively, but it all comes back to their time in Houston. The city is a huge place and P.E.N.S. shows audiences that there’s more to Houston than generally recognized. It’s a reminder that art is everywhere and that art communities are indispensable.
Director Mikell Limbrick with iRise Films structures the film around the poets he speaks to, combining interviews with footage of their poetry sets. They discuss the issues that invigorate them; the 2014 Ferguson shooting and founding of Black Lives Matter, in particular, acted as a foundational event for many of the younger members of the community. Some cite the poetry community as an escape for many from addiction or difficult home lives. Some cite it as an honest outlet for expression in a culture that doesn’t pay enough attention to Black voices. There are also thoughtful criticisms of the commercial side of art and what it takes to make a living practicing art these days. What it takes to build a following, to merchandise yourself while staying true to your art.
It’s a full-bodied documentary made by members of the same creative community. It’s less a narrative piece than a survey of every artist they could fit into the running time. At two hours, it asks for a commitment from the audience: Care about these people and their lives and simply listen to them speak. With so many interested members of the community, that is not difficult. These are poets from every walk of life and every age. Documentaries about local art scenes sometimes slide into slight hagiography, emphasizing the importance of a small group in the grand scheme of a city. P.E.N.S. recognizes that the group is important to the people who speak their truth here and those whose lives are changed by listening to them.
The commercialization of art — and development of internet- or video-based art — makes it easy to forget the essential role community plays in its creation. We’re at the tail end of a year during which it was difficult to gather in live venues for any sort of performance. Artists and people are hungry to be together again, to stand in the same room, to work together to build their truths and experience something mutual. P.E.N.S.is, above all things, a reminder about the diversity of expression and how important community is to art. Poetry is simply the means by which these artists communicate, and their love for it is inspiring.