When George Watsky was kicked out of his high school English class for talking back, poetry was the last thing on his mind.
That’s when his teacher referred him to Youth Speaks, an after school program that encourages young people to express themselves using their own vernacular, and for a teenager who had only been exposed to classic poetry like Shakespeare, witnessing spoken word poetry for the first time ignited inspiration.
“I thought, if there’s any way I can involve this in my life, I’ll be happy,” Watsky said.
Ten years later, the 25-year-old is a YouTube sensation with more than 38 million views of his original rhymes and rap compositions. As his fame continues to grow, he pursues his passion by touring to college campuses and venues across the United States.
On Feb. 3, he sat on the edge of the stage in Somsen Auditorium at Winona State University with his feet dangling off the side as he chatted about the upcoming Super Bowl with seven fans.
The slender brunette blended in among the students, wearing a dark red plaid flannel, khaki pants, and matching tan shoes.
He appeared at ease in the crowd and entirely in his element.
As the clock crept closer to 7 p.m., Watsky disappeared backstage to comb his hair before the auditorium flooded with students. Around 180 spectators filled the seats of the auditorium waiting to watch a different kind of performance.
Winona State English professor Andrew Cochran said spoken word poetry is a unique challenge for poets to present their work because even the slightest fumble of words could mean a ruined rhythm and performance.
“If a poem bombs, it’ll be undeniable,” Cochran said.
Strolling on to center stage, Watsky captured the audience’s attention with his lightning-fast speech. The rapid rhymes have become his trademark.
In 2006, the San Franciscan native won first place and was selected to perform on season six of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam in New York. First Word Press published his debut poetry collection “Undisputed Backtalk Champion” later that year.
In 2007, Watsky joined YouTube and began uploading his poems and rap songs online to build a more widespread audience. A year later, he enrolled at Emerson College in Boston, Mass. to pursue a B.A. degree in writing and acting for the screen and stage where he attended class in the beginning of the week and performed on tours during the weekends.
Using revenue from his performances to fund his YouTube videos, Watsky dreamed of a day when he could invest in a hybrid music and spoken word performance with a full band.
When Winona State’s University Programming Activities Committee saw Watsky at their annual visit to the National Association of Campus Activities Conference last April, they immediately booked a performance for spring 2012. Sarah Traeger, director of UPAC, said that booking a year in advance was a rarity since they usually wait until fall to line up the spring performance.
Watsky incorporated college themes of drinking and sexual affairs into his rhymes, which kept his audience fully engaged so as to not miss a single word.
He spoke of the importance of making the best out of unfortunate situations like throwing up on a Boeing 747, and in his composition, “Love Poem,” he expressed his affection by “loving with all of his parts” as he held the microphone for each of his body parts to speak.
“I love you with my hips, which do not lie,” he said.
Watsky triggered roars of laughter as he removed his shoes and proceeded to do the same with Dessureault’s, simultaneously giving a pep talk to his six-year-old self who aspired to become a robot.
“I’m a huge fan,” Dessureault said. “I was just glad to finally meet him.”
Watsky shared his modern life perspectives throughout his hour-long performance, touching on intimate topics including childhood ambitions and religion.
Because he was raised secular by his Jewish and Christian parents, Watsky expressed his admiration for those who had a solid faith, and admitted to feeling cheated out of answers.
“If you suppose your speech is normal, it’s cause your impediment is listening,” he said.
Watsky concluded the performance by thanking audience, kicking off his shoes, and climbing off stage to greet the audience.
Although he is often lonely, he said he is appreciative of his life and doesn’t want to be an “ungrateful bastard.”
“It can be mentally draining,” he said. “But it’s a dream come true for me.”