Katherine Noble, Contributing Writer
The Dark Room at The Hof Garden is an intimate space with worn hardwood floors, a sleek bar, a wall full of vintage cameras and a glittery disco ball hanging in the center of the ceiling.
On Sept. 15, however, the focus wasn’t on any of that. Instead, the audience fixated on an unassuming black stage, filled by various poets and artists. This event was “Say Word Sunday,” an open-mic night hosted by poet Megan Rickman Blackwood.
The evening’s lineup featured a wide range of contributors, from a soft-spoken southern woman sharing her poetry for the first time, to a young boy with a bestickered guitar and the aching croons of Daniel Caesar, to a comedy bit about lesbians versus pescatarians that garnered equal parts groans and giggles.
“There’s not a lot of spaces left in the city to really get free and share yourself in a way that may be cathartic and cleansing for yourself but may also, like, save the life of someone in the audience. So holding that space open has been super important to me,” Blackwood said.
Blackwood initially started “Say Word Sunday” with Burnems over a decade ago and had to end it due to her touring schedule. When she returned to the Richmond area, Blackwood wanted to make sure there was still a space for the raw and real expression that wasn’t seen at other open mic night events.
“There needs to be places where you can come and say ‘I’m not okay right now and I need to talk about it.’ That’s what happened tonight and it was beautiful and really intense,” said Blackwood.
Two poets were specially featured at this event — C. Thomas and Roscoe Burnems. Both spoke on issues such as mental health and trauma.
Thomas is good friends with Blackwood and frequently makes the trip down from D.C. to feature at events specifically for her.
“I’m drawn to her because she’s very real and raw,” Thomas said. “And before I even heard her work, I was just drawn to her, I said there’s just something about her I love.”
Thomas is an activist for the LGBTQ community and for child abuse prevention, both issues that are personal for him. “I do a whole lot because I’m an umbrella. … Wherever I’m needed is what I do.”
Burnems said slam poetry has the potential to engage an audience in a way that simply reading poetry does not, with its metaphoric language, passion and emotion.
“But bigger than anything, poetry saved my life. I was super depressed and suicidal as a teen,” Burnems said. “It also allowed me to connect with people that had similar stories.”
Burnems is an advocate for mental health, particularly in the African American community.
“I think communities of color have to normalize the conversation of mental health,” Burnems said. “Right now, it’s too taboo and while I think that it’s changing, the process is slow. I think art can play a huge factor in that, but overall the older generations have to be willing to listen … and be more transparent about their own mental health in order to erase the stigmas.”
Burnems summed up the core message of his work in one sentence, one that seemed to aptly summarize the evening as a whole, “The human experience is full of trauma and resilience.”