It rests within everyone; it’s how we battle. Yet, for something we all possess, it’s a task to release it from its ongoing war with anxiety.
Gigi Bella braves multiple battles each time she gets on stage.
Dimness swallowed the backdrop as a spotlight shined on the performer. She collected the air from the small space between her lips and the microphone as the crowd looked still and stultified, waiting to be entertained.
“If I can say something on stage that causes people to think or change or consider something outside of themselves, that they maybe didn’t think about, that’s all I want to do,” Bella said.
Bella amazes crowds with her blend of unique comedy and powerful slam poetry. And why wouldn’t she? Bella was once named the 10th ranked woman poet in the world, after all.
A personal renaissance
As a teenager Bella was involved in musical theater and even considered pursuing the art in college with aspirations to reach Broadway. There was still a creative void and sense of belonging that needed to be filled, though.
“You’re never the lead role in your own life,” she said about her situation then. “There was no place for me to see myself and I just felt incredibly ostracized.”
A friend then took her to a poetry slam when she was 16 years old, and her life changed. After immersing herself in the community and eventually reading at open mic nights, she was encouraged to compete in a poetry slam.
Her career has blossomed since placing in that event. She was ranked the 10th woman poet in the world at the 2017 Women of the World Poetry Slam; she’s a two-time Project X Bronx Poetry champion, a Pink Door Fellow and the 2018 National Poetry Slam champion.
Bella’s poetry has been featured on Button Poetry, Slamfind and in a variety of journals. She also has a published collection, “big feelings,” which was released in 2020.
Her accomplishments are the product of her distinctive style and stage presence. Bella’s poetry has a comedic element but it escalates into a powerful message.
“Everybody has their own unique way to tell a story, and when I’m being my most honest self, I’m often telling jokes and being very silly,” she said. “I feel like that laughter gives us a little bit of trust or a bond to be able to listen to something that’s maybe a little bit harder to swallow.”
She also incorporates characters, music and mid-performance costume changes to produce enchanting memorable moments.
“I like just creating the best, most entertaining thing I can think of for an audience,” she said.
Slam poetry was developed in the 1980s by a Chicago construction worker, Marc Kelly Smith. The idea behind the competition was to revitalize the passion for poetry and bring more attention back to the craft. There has been a modern rebirth as competitions have grown, artist tours have formed and online platforms have expanded poetry’s reach.
Bella has shared the stage with many powerful women in the poetry world, including Sabrina Benaim, who first came across Bella’s work online and immediately was drawn to her energy.
“Gigi is an insane talent. I feel like the first time I saw her it was like watching a firework show,” Benaim said.
Poetry is a challenging medium, similar to abstract paintings; it can have many different meanings depending on the person. If the artist understands the audience, it helps them create a more welcoming form of entertainment, and Benaim explained Bella is a refreshing, unique voice in the field.
“I just think Gigi is a mix of pop culture with literature with her natural kind of charisma; it’s just such a good mix for poetry; it’s very accessible,” she said.
She added, “Back in the day, they would say poetry is boring, and the last word you would use to describe Gigi Bella is boring.”
There, unfortunately, still remains a certain stereotype around the field regarding the artist’s intense dark mind. The poets themselves are as misunderstood as the art form, which is perhaps even more so the case for female poets.
In 2001, psychologist and University of Connecticut professor James C. Kaufman coined the “Sylvia Plath Effect,” addressing the possibility that creative writers, especially female poets, are more susceptible to mental illness.
Plath was a famed American writer who was considered vital in the advancement of confessional poetry. She died by suicide at 30.
Kaufman admitted there are caveats to the study, however, and there is no “causal relationship” that implies all female poets suffer from mental illness.
“It could just as easily be the case that because creative and particularly artistic endeavors are healing, they make people feel better, help people distract themselves and express themselves,” he said.
He added about the value of the arts, “It makes people feel more connected with humanity. … It can help people with what’s called emotional regulation, or in other words, feel less sad or angry or depressed.”
Benaim confessed she struggled not only with depression but the anxiety about sharing her experiences – until she finally did, and it was met with empathy.
“It only gave me more permission and emboldened me more to be comfortable to talk about it and explore it,” she said.
Benaim explained that it’s also more difficult for women to have their confessionals taken seriously, past female poets even suggesting appearance changes.
“You have to learn to be a woman with a microphone,” she said. “I’m talking about the deepest depths of depression, why does it matter what I look like?”
Kaufman furthered about female poets, “Sometimes there’s depression and anxiety, and sometimes they’re just reacting to really intense and unfair pressures and stressors, and sometimes it can be a combination.”
Bella is never uncomfortable discussing mental illness on stage. She said that even her Mexican heritage has been challenged on top of everything else.
“When I get on stage, there are people who are going to question the things that I say about my identity,” she said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I can hold my own with just about anyone. … I know what I’m doing.”
She also knows how to bite back.
Bella said about responding to ridicule and threats from audience members, “For me, as scary as it is, it’s a success, because it’s a little seed that’s stuck on their back molar that’s just gonna bother them until maybe they do something about it. … If you have a problem with it, there’s a problem within you.”
Whether it’s the stigma of mental illness, sexism or ridicule, artists across a variety of mediums must tend to both their internal battles and the strain of the industry.
Kaufman explained, “Any type of creativity, particularly artistic creativity, often involves a certain defiance, a certain unconventionality, a certain willingness to go against the crowd.”
Bella said, “Not only am I here, I’m happy, I’m dancing, I’m telling stories that you didn’t want me to tell. … I’m always in pursuit of radical joy.”
Every battle faced, minor or major, external or internal, takes bravery, especially when it comes to entertaining the bewildered, exposing vulnerability to strangers and proving clichés are nothing more than unoriginal assumptions in need of insight.
Bella said, “It’s scary to be brave; it’s scary to say brave things, but there are things that need to be said.”
Bravery isn’t rare, for it’s something society possesses to face our shared burdens. We just have to accept them, as well as the people willing to stand with a microphone.