A writer finds healing, family and a calling in Columbus' performance poetry scene.
Truth is, I never wanted to preach. But that didn’t stop me from feeling called to it.
I was about 13, sitting under the dryer at a hair salon on a typical Saturday when, instead of reaching for an Essence or Jet or Seventeen, my fingers inched toward a small book lying on a side table. In it, I read about the life of a man named Jeremiah who had words like fire shut up in his bones, so much so that he had to speak. Something in this story rose up within me. I thought of the fire that rose through my bones when I heard my childhood pastor preach, or when my youth pastor offered up his sermons. I recognized that fire.
I held on to it and tucked it inside.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Writing poetry always came naturally to me—it was my first language. When I was in second grade, there was a competition to write poems about the seasons; at least two of mine were published in the local newspaper. My freshman year of high school, when we were assigned to keep journals for the year, I could only write poems. The words poured out.
This was before my mother never came home from the hospital, before my life changed forever. There was no going back to normal. My life became the Red Sea, split in two, before and after. My heart, forever severed. A part of me died right along with her.
I wanted to go to counseling, but my father said I had to go to church. So I sat in the pews, 15 years of age, fighting to pray every prayer I knew, but they never came. I sat with my grief and pain and confusion, listening to the pastor, trying to understand the words, ferociously taking notes. Then I went home and wrote those notes into a poem. I wrote every thought into a poem, for years.
Then, two years later, came the morning my sister’s life partner—the father of my niece, the only brother I knew—never woke up. Taken by an aneurism at age 23. I turned to poetry to understand; I turned to poetry to pray.
That same year, I discovered HBO's Def Poetry, where I saw a poet named Sunni Patterson perform from her belly, from the very depths of her spirit. Although I did not have language for what she was doing, I felt a kindred flame, a spark. I felt as if the fire inside her was calling forth the fire inside me.
When I moved soon after that from Youngstown to Columbus for college, I immediately looked for an open mic. I found Black Pearl Poetry, held at a restaurant and bar called The Brownstone (now known as SideBar/The Pelican Room). I was enthralled by what I saw and heard. I went to every open mic I could find, then went home and wrote poems.
I wanted to join these poets onstage in rooms flooded with people who just wanted to listen to the stories of others, reminding them that they are not alone, praying that they would hear something that allowed them to keep breathing one more day. But it wasn’t until I met my mentor, Is Said—known as the godfather of poetry in Columbus, now 80-something years old—that I actually got on the open mic and read my own poem. One night, at Black Pearl Poetry, he got up from the chair beside me, walked unassumingly to the mic, and powerfully performed, “(everybody will be equal) after the bomb.” The room exploded and I was blown away. When he sat back down, I complimented his poem and he asked if I read poetry. I told him I wrote, but had never shared my poems out loud. He invited me to come to New Harvest Café the next evening for its open-mic reading. I read my first poem on a stage that night, and I haven’t left the stage since.
I took the stage to share my story, to remind myself that I am not alone. That my pain was purposeful. And that maybe I could mold it into a skin authentic and transparent enough for someone else to come out from their dark winter and slip inside mine for a while, try it on, until they are courageous enough to shout out their own.
After that, I was hooked. I made sure I had a new poem each week. There was a fire burning within me to share, to be heard, to hear, and to be in community.
I had been on the scene for about a year and a half, reading and performing poetry, when my dear friend, poet Will Evans, persuaded me to slam. To perform an original poem on an open mic is pressure enough, but to compete in a slam is a whole different ballgame. The audience is loud, the pressure intense. Because you are being judged and scored based upon both the quality of your writing and your performance, there is pressure to memorize your poems. That adds to the intensity as you try to make sure you score well enough, round by round, to advance and win.
In that way, I suppose slamming is similar to preaching. You have one moment to get it right. One chance to capture the attention of your audience. One powerful instant to get your message across.
* * *
In the years that followed, I was always surrounded by a community of writers. I went to about four open mics a week. The Poetry Forum on Mondays, Black Pearl—now Writing Wrongs—on Tuesdays, New Harvest Cafe and Writer’s Block on Wednesdays, and typically a Thursday open mic at Zanzibar (now Lincoln Café) or MarVines Gallery. Any evening of the week, you could find writers huddled in a room, reading to each other about their lives or the lives around them. We do poetry wherever we can find the space: pizza joints, galleries, bookstores—heck, even parking lots! As long as there are poems, we poets know how to find and make sanctuary.
When I couldn’t get to poetry, I was at a concert at Skully’s or Rumba Café, watching Fly Union or the Deeptones somewhere. It’s still like that today—only more so. There are so many places to hear poetry and music, you just can’t make them all.
That’s one of the things that I love most about this city. It nurtured me creatively. In the process, I found mentors. People who would ask me what I’m writing and why I’m writing it, push me, keep me on my toes, and make sure that I was growing in my craft. They became my friends, my family.
I began working in a correctional facility for young women, Scioto Juvenile Correctional Institution, teaching poetry as a form of healing. I felt a sense of calling to this place. These young women needed to tell their stories and to be heard. I recognized their need, and saw myself as someone who could help provide those tools. I told my incarcerated students, “If you are able to write it down on paper and then perform it, you are releasing it—and you don’t have to walk around carrying it in your body anymore.”
* * *
Then came the day when I got a call from a woman who was both a poet and a pastor. I never thought these identities could coexist in one body. And yet, there she was.
She wanted me to read a poem at her service. I did—and I kept going back. We became friends. We had plenty of conversations about ministry and the different ways it could look. I decided to enter seminary, with plans to become a prison chaplain. I thought this would bring it all together for me, all of my passions pulled together for a purpose.
Despite enjoying my theological training, I discovered that the pulpit was not the place I felt most comfortable, authentic or at home. The stage was where I felt closest to God. That was where I felt that I was doing the work that God had purposed for me. I never fully resonated with another way of preaching. I didn’t find another way to pray. It was through my pen and on these stages that I had found my healing, and it was the testimony of this healing, this knowledge shut up in bones like Jeremiah’s, that I felt I had to share with the rest of the world. My work was to stand on that stage or sit in that chair and listen to the chorus of authenticity around me, a community of truth-tellers and seekers, bound together by words, by each and every word that we share and pour out into each other—a glorious gospel, a glorious grace, a glorious gift from God.
There is something about getting on the stage and revealing my truth that makes me feel not only powerful, but alive. Again. Each time, it heals another little piece of my heart. And every time I step on stage, I say, “Aaah. … That’s it. ... There’s the fire.” It’s a knowing. It’s a calling. It’s a duty. It is the life after the pain. It is the testimony in being strong enough to stand, in spite of your pain, to stand tall on stage, and to pour out every ounce of what your body can no longer hold inside.
Whether it’s The Poetry Forum, Writing Wrongs, Writer’s Block, Streetlight Guild, Seventh Draft, Native Tongues, Paging Columbus or a special reading at Two Dollar Radio, I know I will always be welcomed at the door by a community who holds that same fire in their bones, releasing their truth and power on stage, ready to receive whoever needs to be heard that night. Someone who feels a fire. The mouth stretched open, wide as someone’s faith, the shout, and the singing of someone’s praise.