True life: Charleston’s next top poet

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It has been said that we must lose ourselves to truly find ourselves. While moving, this can be an extremely daunting statement. Reflecting on who I am as a person, I consider myself to belong to many communities: females, singers, those who keep up with the Kardashians and more importantly, writers. Although writing is something that I do love, I have never experienced a moment in which I lost myself in my passion. Aside from the occasional academic essay or quick write up for my job here at CisternYard, venturing out and crafting any other piece of literature terrified me. So when approached to write on the subject of poetry for this article, I was  hesitant. Although you will find an ample amount of Kanye, Kendrick and J. Cole throughout my Spotify playlists, I was afraid that I could never form such eloquent prose as these poetic rappers. But I saw this opportunity to perform poetry as more than a simple rhyming game; I wanted to challenge myself as a writer and I questioned, is poetry really dead? Was it ever alive? What’s with the snapping? And what is a poetry slam? It is through this questioning that I immersed myself in a culture hoping to gain a better understanding of poetry and grasp the concept of slams, all while discovering my poetic identity.

In actuality, I embarked on this journey about a month ago. Covering the Martin Luther King Jr. day celebrations in Charleston, I attended the Youth Speak-Out and Poetry Slam, with the theme of  “Raise your voice and you will be heard.” The young contestants were judged on their delivery of poems concerning but not limited to themes of racism, police brutality and freedom of expression. I was intrigued by the energy, talent and confidence in the room  and wanted to know more about the culture of poetry slams and spoken word in general.

To guide me on this journey, I scoped out some help and was directed to Derek Berry, a junior at the College. Rumor had it that Berry established a reputation for himself in the Charleston poet community as someone with immense passion and knowledge of the artform. With this in mind, I dubbed him one of my coaches and began the first step in the running to become Charleston’s next top poet.

Beginning his poetic journey at age 16, Berry, already a fiction writer, simply wrote poetry for spare change. Following his first win in the contest Poetry Matters, Berry “started writing with new eyes.” He found a passion in reading loud and expressive poetry and ventured on to local open mics. What started as an attempt to collect some spare change developed into a self discovery. Berry admits that he first stuck around because of the fellow poets he met. “The community proved to be loving. I encountered local poets who nurtured my growth and encouraged me to keep writing.”

He suggested a great way for novice writers, such as myself, to be more poetic, was to seek out other poets and attend poetry events. I took this advice and sat in on an open mic. Finding my way to East Bay Meeting house, a fancy yet casual bar and cafe that hosts weekly shows starring a featured poet or musician. Performers entertain the crowd for around 45 minutes, followed by an open mic where participants recite up to two poems or original songs. During  the night of my attendance, poet and songwriter Paul Allen was a sight to see,  bestowing on the gathered crowd witty poems and clever songs. Currently the longest running open mic in Charleston, East Bay’s Monday Night Poetry and Music series has held packed audiences for more than five years.

Seeking out other venues, I was directed to The Unspoken Word at King Dusko. Owned and operated by Jesse and McKenzie Eddy, the hangout offers anything from tea to local art and occasionally features amateur poets reciting creative works that may be considered loud or even offensive. Sponsored by The Unspoken word is the Holy City Slam. The monthly event is an opportunity for poets to brush up on their skills, flaunt their lyrics and battle for a cash prize. Hosting their largest slam yet, Holy City Slam will also take their competition to Charleston Music Hall later this month, inviting not only local poets but several out of town notables.

And presenting poetry with a kinky twist, The Erotic Poetry Show attracts an audience from near and far to engage in some of the wildest poetry around. While scandalous, the event nevertheless sells out. It features “some of the best entertainers in town” performing intense poetry that leads into an even livelier after party.

Foley reads Walt Whitman at King Dusko's open mic night.
Foley reads Walt Whitman at King Dusko’s open mic night. (Photo by Samuel McCauley)

However, with many more questions in mind I reached out and looked for additional guidance in this poetic city. I was referred to Matthew Foley, founder of Holy City Youth Slam. Like most teens, he used poetry as a coping method – an escape from difficult situations. Now a teacher, Foley admits that it was in his classrooms that he first started to believe in himself as a writer. “When poetry lessons and class poetry slams became the most popular events in my classroom, it reminded me how powerful poetry was,” he said. His motive in creating the Holy City Youth Slam was to promote this power in Charleston. Offering writing workshops, pairing youth with mentors and organizing poetry slams, Foley hopes to eventually send a team of young poets to Brave New Voices, a national poetry slam competition.

He told me that at a typical poetry slam, poets have three minutes to read or perform their work for a live audience. Such competitions were introduced by Marc Smith, a poet from Chicago in 1986 who thought “poetry should speak to the lives of ordinary people.” Poems can focus on any topic, and can sometimes be performed through whispers, shouts or screams. A group of randomly selected judges then scores the poet from zero-10. The goal is to have 30 points after the highest and lowest scores are dropped – the poetic equivalent of a perfect 10. And although it is all a great competition, Foley mentions that “the goal of slam is to get people excited about poetry in an age when a lot of people would say that ‘poetry is dead’ and to help people remember how electrifying a great poem can be.”

So after roughly two weeks of whetting my poetic appetite by studying the practice, seeing it, hearing it and following the instructions of my coaches, it was time to try my hand at poetry. First things first, find inspiration by following the styles of other poets. “We begin trying to emulate the choices of others and in that process, we find a voice of our own,” Berry said. Next, simply sit down and start writing. And once your masterpiece is complete, read it, listen to it, and revise it and repeat six more times. It is that simple. And to go the extra mile, share the poem at an open mic or compete in a slam. But, Berry warned, while poetry slams take practice and it is common to lose the first few attempts, “the real importance of poetry slams is to bring new voices to the stage, to inspire.”

Concluding my journey, I can attest to the fact that the poetic culture is an exhilarating rabbit hole to delve into. And while poetry may not be for everyone, it is to be respected and appreciated. When applied to our lives, poetry has the power to draw forth our deep beings, daring everyone to face their hidden insecurities and break free from safe comforts within ourselves. Berry and Foley declare that poetry is the “holiest confession one can make” and it is a way to “speak truth to power, [expelling] our personal demons.” Poetry is definitely not dead; it is alive and thriving in Charleston. And though I may not be Charleston’s next top poet, I emerged from this journey with opened eyes, having seen the welcoming world and possibilities that come along with poetry. For now, I leave you with a small portion of the thoughts in my mind.

It’s February.

The month of love some say

Of cold weather about every day.

The time for grand declarations

For candy and heart shaped decorations.

I see these things in every store

But this month is about something more.

It’s February.

The month of remembrance

Of slaves that once did dance

That once did sing

That’s what I’m remembering.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice

Telling us we have a choice,

To fight and strive,

To keep his dream alive.

This is why I need no valentine

This month is ours. It’s yours. It’s mine.

This article first appeared in the February 2015 issue of The Yard.

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