Young spoken-word poets express ‘heartache and joy’ on the Englert stage for the IC Speaks showcase

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Steven Willis emceed and performed at the IC Speaks showcase at the Englert Theatre, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Stage lights cast a blue hue on a lone mic as attendants trickled into the Englert Theatre to see the IC Speaks showcase on Saturday night. About a dozen students from West, City, Liberty and Tate high schools filled the first two rows on the theater’s west side.

In the hour and a half that followed, the students got up one by one to stand at the mic and pour their hearts out, addressing issues of mental illness, self harm, race and gender through spoken-word poems.

IC Speaks brings poets across the Iowa City Community School District together with the goal of giving students a voice. Program director Caleb Rainey — or, as he is known in the writing community, the Negro Artist — meets with students at each of the four schools once a week, then holds a monthly district-wide IC Speaks workshop with all the young writers at the Englert.

While the students were familiar with the venue, Saturday’s showcase marked the first time most or all of them have performed there in front of an audience. There are 40 IC Speaks participants across the district, and 13 of them took to the stage Saturday. The showcase was free and open to the public, but carried a suggested donation of $25. Proceeds benefited IC Speaks.

“We are trying to show you what it is that we’ve been working on,” Rainey said. “We do a lot of things behind closed doors, we do a lot of things in classrooms or here at the Englert where it’s just us, and we wanted to share with the community — with our parents, with our friends, with our family — what it is we do when we meet with each other and what it is that we have to say.”

Rainey encouraged the audience to communicate with the performers through snaps, stomping feet and grunting. He instructed attendants to rub their hands together if they noticed the poet was nervous or getting emotional to show support.

“You doing that tells the poet, ‘Hey, we’re with you,’ ‘Hey, it’s OK,’ ‘Hey, relax, we want to hear what you have to say.’ So that’s a really powerful thing that we can do as an audience,” Rainey said.

The attentive audience of about 25, not including the students themselves, did as Rainey instructed, but the most distinct and consistent sounds of encouragement came from Rainey himself, who has been working with these students for months.

IC Speaks Director Caleb Rainey introduces students at the IC Speaks Showcase on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“It was wonderful. All of them have grown into themselves more,” Rainey said following the students’ performances. “Not only has their writing gotten better, but they as people have seemed to open up and be more of who they are.”

The showcase was part of a day-long conference that began with a breakfast at MERGE. Following the meal was a workshop where students met other poets from Iowa, and then a panel discussion in which the young writers could ask questions of five spoken-word poets.

Among these panelists was 26-year-old Chicago-based writer Steven Willis, who emceed and performed at the showcase that afternoon. Willis was quick to point out how special it was that the young writers were expressing themselves this way.

“Think of what you were doing at 15, 16, 17,” he asked the adults in the audience. “… To think that these young adults are here, expressing themselves and also really having the courage to explore their identities in these ways that perhaps society won’t let them or says they’re too young to do is pretty amazing.”

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One of those young adults was Tobias Lee — or, as he requested to be introduced, T-Wonder. Lee performed two poems, “Forgetting Does Not Make Forgiveness” and “I Beg of Thee, Lord Have Mercy,” in which he described painful memories from childhood and not being accepted as a trans man.

Lee started writing poetry in sixth grade. He describes his earlier writing as “cheesy,” but said it has developed over the years as a crucial form of expression.

“It kind of evolved when I realized I had all this pent-up heartache and joy, and I could express myself better through these poems,” he said. “They were my best form of self-expression and how I could constructively get myself out there without destroying myself in the process.”

Before Lee went onstage, he said he was curled up backstage thinking, I can’t do this. But a fellow Tate High student, Jay Wallerich, gave him a helpful pep talk.

“I was like, ‘Alright, breathe, focus. It’s OK to be emotional.’ Those poems were my emotions and I tried to express them through it, and I think I did good,” Lee said.

Stephen Willis passes the mic to Nancy Nahra at the IC Speaks Showcase. Saturday, Nov .16, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Wallerich performed a poem titled “Ten Things No One Knows About My Family” where they described the bond between themself and two special people in their life.

Wallerich said they knew they had to join the poetry club as soon as they heard about it. Being part of an accepting group of writers has been so influential, they said.

“It’s been honestly everything. That’s such a weird way to describe it, but it’s just been everything,” Wallerich said. “I’ve been able to beat writer’s block; I’ve been able to get to know people in my community, because I’m from Cedar Rapids. So, to jump into the Iowa City area, even 30 minutes away, is somewhat of a culture shock, because Cedar Rapids doesn’t have big pride. Cedar Rapids doesn’t have a multitude of different cultures and trans people and so much openness. So to be part of such an open poetry group, it’s wonderful.”

Wallerich’s sentiment is exactly what Rainey wants to highlight as the program marches on.

“I just want to keep creating a space in which students come and they feel valued and want to keep writing,” he said.

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