Slam Richmond’s open mics take place in a vaulted brick building, surrounded by a chain link fenced-in parking lot.
The weekly workshops and open mic events are open to the public, and on an evening in September an array of youth performed original works ― most of which addressed personal experiences with themes like racially-motivated police brutality, suicide and abandonment.
The host for the week, Michelle Dodd, described the inclusion of social issues into the work of young poets as a modern phenomenon; when she joined the group in 2010, the atmosphere was not as framed by heavy topics.
“The youth that are coming up are exploring how to understand [their experiences] through these poems. Whereas with the youth when I first got here, we didn’t get as many social poems,” Dodd said.
Dodd said Slam Richmond is designed to be an inclusive space. Artists are free to explore whatever topic they choose during their time on stage. Many poets, like 19-year-old Cassie Gwinn, view performing with Slam Richmond as therapeutic.
“I couldn’t get up and do half of these poems somewhere else. Half of them are about past suicide attempts and things like that,” Gwinn said. “I can now speak openly about that and that’s not something you’re supposed to keep inside yourself.”
“There’s a saying that you’re not over something until you’ve written poetry from every perspective and the chair,” Gwinn said.
At 15-years-old Cass Lee found a lifelong passion in slam poetry and theater, too.
“I have bipolar disorder and OCD, so (Slam Richmond) definitely helps me get through and try to cope with moods, help cope with compulsions and it helps me become a better writer,” Lee said.
Though one wouldn’t know it from watching their dynamic before the open mic began, most of the poets were complete strangers before they one way or another found themselves surrounded by the four white walls and theatrical curtains of “The Shop.”
Due to the infusion of theatrical elements, slam poetry is often more akin to “ranting” and is less metaphorical than other poetry, according to Lee.
Located across from Artworks and Plant Zero, the environment has no shortage of opportunities for young artists, introduced by the host with quirky, sarcastic catchphrases.
The stage, just a half-step above the ground, welcomes poets of all levels.
Bryan Beechaum performed his work “Good Game Takai,” a recording of which was just published online by the poetry site Button.
“It’s a very non-judgemental group. You don’t have to be afraid to do a poem if you’ve never done it before,” said 23-year-old Lauren Mann.
Dodd said while anyone can benefit from attending Slam Richmond’s events, the environment is geared towards providing opportunities for youth.
“We definitely put the youth first. That’s hands down, the younger you are, the more we’re invested in growing your work,” Dodd said.
Some performers have even expanded farther into the field thanks to their involvement with Slam Richmond, like 19-year-old Monsell Johnson.
“Through here I meet a lot of people who ask me to do performances, it’s either singing or doing poetry,” Johnson said. “I’ve actually done some charity performances. One was for Hip Hop for Flint.”
For many of Slam Richmond’s open mic participants, writing has been a constant part of their lives. Gwinn, Mann and 19-year-old Kathleen Quirk all started writing as children, but their experiences with slam poetry didn’t start until coming to Slam Richmond.
“A year ago before I came here, I couldn’t speak in front of anyone I didn’t know really well,” Quirk said. “Since coming here, I’ve been able to be myself more in that way.”
For some of the poets, the idea of performance intertwines itself with the writing process, so the two often influence each other. In addition, the mentorship of experienced poets and featured writers hosting workshops provides many opportunities for improving craft.
“I come over here and these people love me and support me but obviously they’re sometimes strangers so they’re also not afraid to tell me, ‘This isn’t great, let’s workshop it. Let’s make it better,’” said 20-year-old Rebecca Law. “It’s confidence in just getting onto the stage, but also honesty that makes it so much better. It prepares me for future endeavors in writing.”
Georgia Geen, Contributing Writer