He walks on the stage, introduces himself to the audience and takes a deep breath before asking for the audience’s participation.
“Stand up if you like…” He ponders. “Coffee?” Everyone stands proudly as he nods.
“Stand up if you have a secret.” Everyone stands again.
“Stand up if you have ever walked around in the woods with a noose around your neck looking for a tree to hang yourself from,” Tanner directs the audience. There is an instant silence that falls over the crowd as Tanner steps up to the mic and brings the audience to the scene: him as a child at summer camp with a noose around his neck -- the second time he tried to commit suicide.
Alex Tanner is six feet tall and wears a pair of pink socks with vertical navy stripes. He sits with his legs crossed and his hand under his chin. His brown eyes show a glimpse of innocence coupled with intensity and awareness. When he was 14 he was diagnosed in the 95 percentile of his age group for clinical depressive issues. Alex has tried to commit suicide three times in his life; once each when he was 13, 14 and 16. In his spoken word poetry Tanner opens up to the audience his past experiences with depression, eating disorders and family issues. As a way to warm up the audience Tanner uses a technique one of his favorite poets Theresa Davis uses -- humor.
“[She] is a real master of opening the crowd up if its spoken word and sort of making you a lot more emotionally vulnerable to what's going on,” Tanner said. “And that’s sort of the point of it -- to get across some sort of idea or emotion. If you come across too strongly to start with or in a way that is not going to be picked up then you lose that connection with other people. Humor plays a large role in making people more comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Tanner, 20, is a freshman majoring in psychology and a member of the on-campus spoken word group Lyric.
“At this point I feel fine on a day-to-day basis. One of the driving forces for me doing spoken word and going out and performing is I want to make something out of my experiences beyond just myself.”
Born in Carborro, N.C., Tanner spent most of his time growing up frequenting his favorite coffee shop, where he jokes that he became an Italian soda connoisseur, and going to concerts at Cat’s Cradle with friends. However, for a part of Tanner’s early life he was under the impression that he did not want to live, and from that he took to self-harming. He finds it shocking now that years ago he did not expect to make it to age 16, let alone 20.
Tanner had reservations about spoken word poetry when he first started writing.
“Spoken work is a raw format compared to on-page writing,” Tanner said. “It was hard to write about some experiences, but writing them down and performing them in the same vein was necessary.”
As a senior in high school, Tanner would accompany friends to open mic nights and poetry slams. A slam is a competition in which participants recite original poetry, which is then judged. Tanner planned to enjoy a gap year between college and high school as a volunteer for AmeriCorps. When he came back from visiting family in Europe at the end of the summer, Tanner learned of an administrative error. This error caused him to be dropped from the Public Allies program that would have preoccupied his time for 10 months. Tanner moved from the idea of being mobile to the understanding of being stuck in Carrboro.
“They [AmeriCorps] sort of dropped the ball, and that ball was seven [of the 20] people selected for the program, one of whom I was.”
Feeling listless in a relationship, Tanner spent four months at home doing what he called “wasting time” with his at-the-time girlfriend, enjoying parties and hanging out with her and friends.
It was not until January of 2012 that his parents found recreational stimulants while rooting around his room in search of a computer charger.
“The worst thing about that kind of stuff [stimulants] is that you think you’re sane for that, you think you’re completely rational, and yet you’re not. I was becoming an increasingly angrier person and thinking that I was completely justified in being so.”
For Alex, this was a wakeup call.
“Shit hit the fan, long story short, which ended up being a good thing because I was forced to get my shit into gear,” Tanner said.
After that night, Alex began volunteering as a counselor at Arts Center in Carrboro and working at the Freedom House, a local rehab center. This experience helped Alex to get a grasp of the administrative side of each. During this time Tanner also took classes at Durham Technical Community College. The lack of a car gave him an opportunity to write on the hour-long bus trips and in between class breaks. He closed out his gap year in the summer of 2013 by going to visit family in England and traveling to Israel for two weeks.
In the middle of his first semester of college at ASU, Tanner has completed four spoken word pieces. He eventually wants to earn his doctorate in psychology and teach at the university level. Along with teaching, Tanner would also like to eventually publish some form of creative work.
However, Tanner is not just restricted to spoken word and page-poetry. With the influence of bands like Between the Buried and Me and other progressive-metal artists, Tanner is the singer and songwriter of his band ForeverEnds.
“It was centered around the idea that a lot of things people think of as forever or as consistent factors of their life; whether it be relationships or where they are in life, say being depressed and thinking that’s going to last forever, thinking those things that are rigid and constant. But that’s not the case in a positive and negative way.”
Tanner is back in the forest as he struggles with the ugliness of a suicide note. The camp counselors are calling out for him, and it is thundering and lightning. They saved his life, even though they will never know that. He brings the poem back to the beginning. “Stand up if you have ever had family issues.” Everyone stands. Just like at the beginning of the piece -- they all like coffee and have a secret.
Untitled, Alex Tanner