- Associated Press - Monday, April 17, 2017

FITCHBURG, Mass. (AP) - The first two seconds are the hardest.

“Are they going to understand? Are they going to connect? Are they going to feel what I’m feeling?” Joseph James Bellamy asks himself every time he starts a spoken-word performance.

But, despite his doubts, each time he loses himself in the words and the sounds.

In recent months, the Leominster resident said, he has had more opportunities to share his art locally thanks to a monthly poetry and spoken-word night started by Maria Milagros Vazquez last fall at The Man Cave, a men’s clothing consignment shop in Fitchburg.

Vazquez, a Fitchburg resident, started performing her poetry as a senior at Fitchburg State University and continued practicing spoken word - an often rhythmic, word-based performance art - long after graduation.

But the options to perform locally were nearly nonexistent and, as a single mother, she found it hard to commute to the events in Worcester and Boston. Frustrated, she decided to create her own free monthly gathering.

“I said I’m going to start next month,” she said. “I’m just going to jump off the cliff and make it happen.”

Her mother, the owner of The Man Cave, offered to let her use the space, and Sizer School lent Vazquez 30 chairs.

The first event in October drew about 30 people, including performers and spectators.

“It was perfect,” Vazquez said. “It was intimate, it was small and it was just lovely.”

She secured an $800 grant from the Fitchburg Cultural Council to cover expenses such as utilities.

Since its inception the event has drawn a steady crowd, including a core group of about a dozen performers and fans.

The performances, which are reminders of community and love, also start with a warning, Vazquez said.

“If you have any biases, you need to let that go right now,” she said.

At past meetings, performers have covered a variety of topics, including stories about abusive fathers, getting clean from drugs and owning your own sexuality. One woman read an open letter to the man who opened fired in a Colorado movie theater in 2012, Vazquez said.

Vazquez’s own work often deals with forgiveness and self-discovery. Bellamy said many of his pieces are about love and race, though not without a touch of humor.

For longtime Fitchburg resident Cera Hawkins, the topics she speaks about can be summed up in one word.

“Well, the easy answer is yoga,” she said. “My passion in life is to encourage people to be exactly who they are.”

Hawkins said making opportunities in the region for this type of art and expression creates a more vibrant community.

“It’s part of the revitalization of the city,” she said.

“When I went to that first spoken word night some of the stuff that they were saying from the platform, it resonated with me and it encouraged me and it inspired me. I thought our stories are not ours to keep,” Vazquez said. “They’re just not.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2pa3gxL

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Information from: Sentinel & Enterprise (Fitchburg, Mass.), https://www.sentinelandenterprise.com

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