Iowa City Poetry and IC Speaks kick off new Mic Check Poetry Festival this weekend

Mic Check Poetry Festival

Friday-Sunday, Nov. 5-7, various venues, Free-$85

Lisa Roberts and Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey’s shared love of poetry and education inspired Mic Check Poetry Festival. — Genevieve Trainor/Little Village

Mic Check Poetry Festival, a new addition to the Iowa City festival scene, runs Nov. 5-7 and features a full lineup of both local and nationally known spoken word artists, who will both perform and teach. But it started as a conversation between Lisa Roberts, founding director of Iowa City Poetry, and Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey, program director at IC Speaks.

IC Speaks was struggling to keep up with nonprofit status in 2020 when it was absorbed by Iowa City Poetry. Rainey knew Roberts from volunteering with the Iowa Youth Writing Project several years prior, where she served as assistant director at the time.

“It just made sense,” Rainey said of the merger, “We became this partnership.”

Roberts agreed. “When he approached me in spring 2021 about IC Speaks joining forces with Iowa City Poetry, the answer was a very quick and loud YES,” she said in an email.

“We [first] met when I saw him perform ‘The New 3/5ths’ at a show from The Hook in Cedar Rapids,” Roberts said. “I was completely blown away. The mix of craft, insight, personal vulnerability, political commentary, stage presence –- it was clear that Caleb is a true force.”

She immediately invited Rainey to work with her students. “Partnering with Caleb has energized my work because I believe so whole-heartedly in how he mentors young writers,” she said.

Both Roberts and Rainey have backgrounds in education, and the idea for Mic Check started in 2019 when their respective organizations collaborated with Englert Wavelength on a Youth Spoken Word Conference.

“It was originally created for teen writers and Caleb and I worked together then … When we started to collaborate again in spring 2021 … it was so funny. Caleb and I had exactly the same idea: Turn that conference into a big spoken word festival open to poets of all ages,” Roberts said.

Members of the IC Speaks slam team. — courtesy Iowa City Poetry

The name, though, was all Rainey. Rainey said they had been trying to create “a catchy title that really emphasized spoken word — it was really important to emphasize that element.”

Rainey and Roberts come to spoken word from different places, but both believe it is a particularly accessible form, making it a core tenet of programming for both Iowa City Poetry and IC Speaks. And they each expressed great enthusiasm for the form.

“Spoken word poetry is a fundamentally welcoming art that invites everyone in to tell the story of their embodied experience in our culture,” Roberts said. “I think it’s the most democratic poetry practice, inspiring participation, empathy, open-heartedness and community building.”

Rainey emphasized that the art that moves us most is often the most accessible. “Spoken word is for everyone,” he said. “I’m hoping to reach anyone who needs art to speak for them.”

Although “many people who write poetry don’t recognize spoken word on the same level as the institutionalized, respected forms of poetry,” Rainey — whose passion for spoken word stems, too, from its roots in Black culture — said, it allows for more freedom to innovate. “Spoken word begs to be heard and understood. There’s power in going to a show and seeing someone whose words sound like you.”

With spoken word, he said, “you push and you find your own way.”

To find teachers and performers for Mic Check, Rainey and Roberts said they sat down and listed everyone they could think of and then “just started making calls,” with an eye to balancing identities, content and style.

“We want everyone who comes to see themselves on that stage and say ‘this is art made for me,'” Roberts said.

Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey and Lisa Roberts are excited for their inaugural Mic Check Poetry Festival, Nov. 5-7, Iowa City. — Genevieve Trainor/Little Village

Rainey added that to find that balance that people need to make sure they’re personally branching out with the art they consume, they need to find new venues, locations and styles. And they need to ask, “Are you taking that next step to actually connect?”

“Start with the art. Respect the art. Knowing more artists only helps the art scene,” Rainey said. He stressed that these workshops are for everyone, noting that many people, especially in Iowa City, are intimidated by the idea of calling themselves writers, but “we’re asking you to create in this space. We’re pushing up against a form that maybe takes itself too seriously.”

Rainey will be leading an adult workshop and performing first at the Poetry In Motion event, which kicks off the festival the evening of Friday, Nov. 5. Poetry In Motion features a line-up including Larry Moore, Heather Byrd Roberts, Laura Johnson, Jocelyn Rifas, David Duer, Ever Taylor and Kelsey Bigelow. All performances and workshops during the festival are held in a hybrid format, so those who are not able to attend in person will be able to participate online. Saturday and Sunday feature panels and workshops for both youth and adults, a poetry slam and open mic for festival participants, and a reading headlining Javon Johnson. A couple of events are being presented in collaboration with the Witching Hour Festival, also happening this weekend.


Part of the mission of all Iowa City Poetry programming is accessibility, so beyond highlighting an accessible form, Roberts and Rainey want to make sure the festival is accessible physically and financially, too.

“I know what it feels like to not have resources or writing support. I know what it feels like to be discouraged as a writer in a judgmental space,” Roberts said. Growing up poor, she didn’t know about offerings for writing support or mentorship until she left home. In part because of this, all offerings from Iowa City Poetry have historically included tuition assistance for anyone who needs it. Following this mission, Mic Check is free for teens 13-18 and $85 for adults, which includes admission to all events, though attendees must register for each workshop they want to attend. Many of the events are priced individually, as well.

“In a place that celebrates literature, in a time that needs us all to amplify under-represented voices, the moment is right for a festival celebrating spoken word poetry in Iowa City,” Roberts stated on the timing and need for a festival like Mic Check, “Bringing so many talented people together at one time is an intensely joyful experience. There’s all the hard work that goes into planning beforehand. You inhale and exhale festival in the run up to the dates. But once things begin, wondrous things happen that you couldn’t anticipate: An especially powerful spoken word poetry performance that changes the way you think. A workshop that plants the seed for the poem you’ve always wanted to write. Joyful surprises like that make it all worth it.”

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