English undergrad to teach poetry master class

Photo courtesy of John S. Blake
Photo courtesy of John S. Blake
Photo courtesy of John S. Blake
Photo courtesy of John S. Blake

This Friday, a VCU English major will flip the script and take the teaching role in a poetry master class for the James River Writers annual conference.

John S. Blake, a 45-year-old returning student, was hand-picked by the poetry chair for the 2015 James River Writers Conference, a local nonprofit, to lead “The Art of Slam: Adding Spoken Word to Your Performance Repertoire,” on Friday, Oct. 16, from 2-4 p.m.

“I was thrilled when he accepted our invitation to be a part of this conference and facilitate the spoken word master class,” said Joanna Lee, the James River Writers Conference poetry chair.

Blake, who is perhaps best known in Richmond for his work with slam poetry groups including Slam Richmond and VCU’s nationally-ranked student group Good Clear Sound, published his first book “Beautifully Flawed” in 2012.

“I remembered John Blake from participating in an open mic with Slam Richmond years ago, and I knew him to be a masterful performer and speaker with a passionate belief in the power of poetry,” Lee said.

But for Blake, that passionate belief in the power of poetry may have quite literally saved his life. The slam poet said for him, Marty McConnell’s “Instructions for a Body” was the difference between a heroin overdose in South Jersey 10 years ago and his subsequent journey as a student, speaker, writer and member of the community today. McConnell later wrote the foreword for Blake’s 2012 book.

“I feel like if I don’t do this, I’m not paying it forward,” Blake said. “I’m not participating in my own legacy, I’m not giving back what was given to me. Anything I know, I know because another writer told me.”

After hearing McConnell’s poem, Blake said he began to attend workshops and classes in Philadelphia and New York, before moving to Richmond about seven years ago. He started at VCU last fall.

“I’d been going to a lot of workshops facilitated by great poets: Jericho Brown, Patricia Smith, Natasha Tretheway, Nikki Finney — but I still was afraid I didn’t know enough about poetry to make it through an MFA program, even if it was low-res,” he said. “So I was like, ‘I should probably start from the beginning.’ So I came to VCU, and Claudia Emerson talked me into VCU.”

Blake said he feels indebted to those who helped him, including Emerson. That debt, he said, is why he is compelled to work with student groups like Good Clear Sound, and why he agreed to lead the master class this Friday.

James River Writers, a local nonprofit, is launching their annual conference with the two-hour master classes the day before the 2015 writers conference begins. The master classes are open to the public and will take place all day Friday at the Virginia State Capitol. Classes are $45 for JRW members and $65 for non-members.

“I’d love for students to know that this is a great opportunity, right in their backyard, to meet some of the best and the brightest … We have excellent student rates for the conference and for our monthly Writing Shows, which take place at Firehouse Theatre from January to September, and we’d love to see more students getting involved,” said Katharine Herndon, the executive director for James River Writers.

Blake said he’s expecting about 10 people to come to his master class, though there’s room for 30. One obstacle he pointed out is another master class on the personal essay with Valley Haggard, titled “Life in 10 Minutes: Writing the Personal Essay with Valley Haggard,” which will take place at the same time as “The Art of Slam.” Haggard, whom Blake said he adores, leads creative nonfiction workshops above Chop Suey Books several times a week.

Herndon said the annual conference is meant to connect and inspire readers and writers in the area.

“It’s so important for writers to find people who support and understand all the highs and lows of their creative endeavors, especially when writing can sometimes be very solitary,” Herndon said in an email. “And, from a professional standpoint … conferences are an important way to keep up with changes in the industry and show industry insiders that you’re serious about your chosen path.”

Blake, who is also sitting on the conference panel “To MFA or Not to MFA: Virtues and Vices of the Academic Route,” with Emilia Phillips, said that a lot of his experiences as a returning student have been reassuring, despite his unusual academic path.

“It was refreshing to know I had been doing a lot of writing by instinct that I didn’t know there was a name for,” Blake said. “There was always the doubt of ‘what if I get here and I find out this isn’t where I belong?’ And then I found out this was exactly where I belong.”

“I feel like if I don’t do this, I’m not paying it forward,” Blake said. “I’m not participating in my own legacy, I’m not giving back what was given to me. Anything I know, I know because another writer told me.”

Blake suggested a number of opportunities for aspiring young poets living in Richmond, including Slam Richmond’s free, two-hour writing workshops every Saturday. He also insisted that aspiring writers should not let doubts get in the way.

“That’s, I think, a voice that is ingrained in us through society, that we should only be concerned with the straight lines and the 90 degree angles,” Blake said. “When poets try to add curves to things, they’re shunned for it — until they die, and they’re famous. Then everybody wants you to respect them. So start early. Respect your voice now.”

Copy Editor, Meagan Dermody

1475854_10201819650551357_77223826_nMeg is the copy editor and managing editor emerita, and is graduating in December with a bachelor’s in English. She’s worked at the CT for three years and will happily throw a newspaper at you regardless of whether you actually want it. Meg is currently applying to poetry MFAs, which is not good for her panic disorder. // Twitter | Facebook


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