Freedom To Expression
Members of Poetry Club Use Spoken Word to Highlight Emotions and Experience.
by Kathryn Schiliro
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Two weeks ago, a handful of children and youth stood up in front of a crowd gathered at Jolene's Perk Avenue in downtown Madison and shared their emotions and experiences at an Open Mic Celebration.
They spoke in the form of lyrics, words they put together themselves. Despite their youth, they spoke truth; they spoke of topics difficult to hear.
And, with simply their voic
es, the youth of Poetry Club moved a much older crowd.
Members of The Poetry Club, part of the larger Madison-Morgan County Boys & Girls Club, have decided to approach everyday life through lyrics, channeling their emotions and experiences into writing and then into spoken word performances. This allows members of Poetry Club not only to get critical feedback from their peers, but also to share their thoughts aloud and find common feelings and situations among each other.
"What can I do to make it better?" Bobby Mackey, Club staff member in charge of The Poetry Club, said. "Write it down. Post it. Someone else may feel the same way."
Hannah Thurmond, a middle school student, wrote her poem "True Friends" as a result of gossip.
"Rumors started, and you find out who your true friends are," Thurmond said, of the inspiration behind her poem.
Alexis Banks, seventh grade, wrote "Rise," tying in the literal and figurative dawning of a new day to tenants of Christianity.
"I was saying as God rises, He rises again, He comes back," Banks said.
Toylexious Cosby, fifth grade, composed "Obama," a poem portraying what she's learned from the current president.
"He's the president," Cosby said. "He makes you feel like you can do anything. He's different from other presidents...He lets you know you can be what you want to be."
Richard Tolbert, seventh grade, wrote his poem "The Drug Dealer" after watching a television program.
"I'd just seen something on TV about drugs and stuff and I wanted to write a poem about it," Tolbert said.
Hitting even closer to home, Tolbert has never seen a drug deal take place, but admits hearing about them.
Tolbert also wrote a poem, "Negro," about black-on-black crime and drugs in the community. Despite the potentially controversial content, Tolbert found an open forum in which to share his work at Poetry Club.
"I just wasn't scared," Tolbert said.
"The start for changing something [is not to] be afraid to talk about it," Mackey said. "To start a change, I have to be the change."
The Poetry Club, established through a partnership with the Morgan County African-American Museum and a Grassroots Program Grant, started with between 30 and 40 members, and was gradually whittled down to the more serious elementary, middle and high school poets, according to Mackey.
After one of the initial, once-a-week meetings of Poetry Club, Banks came back the next day with eight new poems that she'd composed at her house over the course of the night.
She, as did other members of Poetry Club, had a lot to say.
"It brings speaking the truth out of me," Jasmin Jackson, fifth grade, said.
While composition has played the largest role in what The Poetry Club does, Mackey is constantly educating Club members about poetry.
"Poetry doesn't have to have music," Mackey said. "Whatever you do, there's no right or wrong; it's about the experience...Express what you feel in writing."
Poetry Club members have taken that to heart.
"I try to put stuff that fits with what I'm doing, my mood," Banks said.
"[I write about] things in everyday life," Tolbert said.
"It depends if there's a lot of drama going on in school," Thurmond said. "I write what I come up with."
"Sometimes I just brainstorm," Jackson said.
They prefer to come up with poetry in places familiar to them: home, school, the Club. "Mostly at home because I can get all into it."
Club members agree that sharing their poetry, the spoken word aspect, is the most daunting part of what they do in Poetry Club. The good news? There's no messing up or getting it wrong when you're sharing something you made.
"It's hard," Cosby said. "You get really scared when you get on the big stage."
"Most people back down because they're nervous," Mackey said, to the Club members. "You're not because this is what you created...Everybody's in this together. We're like a big bowl of cereal."
And Mackey is able to identify with Poetry Club members through his own childhood experiences. He just wishes he had such an outlet during his youth.
"I was a child at one point," Mackey said. "Everything you can think of, I've seen...ISS [In-School Suspension], backtalk -- the book y'all are reading I wrote half of."
Mackey makes it his responsibility, then, to stand in for these youth where his childhood lacked.
"That's why I'm here," Mackey said. "In order for y'all to smile, I've got to smile."
But it hasn't been simply the students that have grown from the experience Poetry Club has provided; adults in attendance took a clue about both themselves and their community from the youth.
"There's so much talent in our young people, and we don't give them credit," Mamie Hillman, of the Morgan County African-American Museum, said. "If we give them a chance to express themselves, we'll all be so much richer."
(Mackey offers his thanks to Kim Lucas, Jolene's Perk Avenue, Karen Robertson, Mamie Hillman and the Grassroots Grant Program.)