Not Just Finger Snaps and Hand Claps: How the Real Life Poets Are Making a Difference in Our Community
As a slam poet and spoken word artist in Birmingham for the past twenty years, I’ve been taking every opportunity I could to make sure my voice has been heard on open mics around town off and on since 1992. I’ve been guilty of writing political poems about social issues that disturb me but never doing anything about them. But there’s a group of poets in Birmingham who are not self-serving like I am. They’re called the Real Life Poets, and they offer activities geared toward helping the community, like conducting a poetry workshop for teens the first Saturday of the month at the Birmingham Public Library, conducting culinary arts workshops, holding community health fairs, and participating in after school programming such as the Better Basics enrichment program. And now they’re offering writing workshops for Birmingham residents who were affected by the tornadoes that hit in April.
Alabama lost 238 of its voices on April 27th . But Real Life Poets are making sure that our community’s voices will still be heard by conducting free workshops in partnership with the Jefferson County Library Cooperative. John Paul Taylor, one of the founders of Real Life Poets, says, “I want people to understand the power of what words can do.” When I talked with him at Family Fun Day in Railroad Park one Sunday back in October, he said,” Creative writing can be used as a form of therapeutic art. It gives a person an outlet for the pain and suffering one deals with after such as tragedy as the April storms. Writing your thoughts down on paper allows for you to express and also visibly see your thoughts, which helps with the healing process.” The first tornado writing workshop was held on October 18, but there are two more workshops that will be offered: one on Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at the Springville Road Public Library and another workshop on Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at the Vestavia Hills Public Library. Real Life Poets will also be collecting works written in these workshops for a printed anthology, called “Our Spirit Will Not Be Broken: Voices from the April Storms.” All the submitted works will be posted on the JCLC Web site. Below is a sampling of one of the works submitted so far, “Tornado” by Laura K. Wagner:
“When you sweep around us/ encircle us in the ring of your arms/it is with a terrible indifference/with closed eyes and measured breaths/that come out ragged despite your efforts. /It is a dance that you try to perform with grace. /You try to tuck the chaos under your skirts/But it is revealed in flashes with each rhythmic twirl/pulsing in beat to the cadence of your steps.”
Wagner, one of our community’s up-andcoming young poets, also participated in “A Night of Unity,” another community program offered by Real Life Poets on October 15th . Taylor shared with me what this young poet said about the event: “Thank you so much for allowing us the young community to share our voices. I had such an incredible time tonight. It was really touching to hear everyone’s stories! I just felt like every single body in there understood me and it was amazing! I’m looking forward to doing many more activities with y’all. Tonight really felt like our voice really counts.”
Taylor says that hearing comments like this is what motivates him. “I am inspired every time I see students come alive with that moment they realize that their words have value and meaning.” “Changing minds, 1 rhyme at a time” is the motto that the Real Life Poets live by. “We care less about numbers at the door or in the crowd and more about the individuals who come to get enlightened through the arts,” Taylor says. “All it has to be is one person in the crowd and that’s enough because we will deliver our poetry like it is a million presidents in the room.”
Taylor started Real Life Poets in August 2006 along with Leroy “Obeah” Hicks and David Hawthorne as an outgrowth of open mics held at Sistah Soul Food Café, a venue in East Lake. They collected canned goods and coats at this venue for their “Operation Mustard Seed” program, which fed the community once a month and gave coats to those in need during the cold months. Since then, they have also participated in after school programming for Better Basics in their four Hope Centers in Fairfield. These programs are held at Robinson, CJ Donald, and Glen Oaks Elementaries as well as Forest Hills middle school. They have also held community health fairs at Wiggins Park and Recreation Center in the Powderly community for the past two years. They conduct bi-weekly sessions for Pathways, a nonprofit organization that provides short and longterm transitional housing for homeless women and their children.
And they offer culinary arts programs as well, which are led by Real Life Poets member Eryka Perry, a chef at Not Just Catering. The overall mission of their culinary arts program is to bring the family back to the kitchen table. “We encourage family involvement and togetherness by teaching kids and parents how to write and prepare recipes, which strengthens the family unit. We focus on healthy yet delicious food alternatives, guiding people in addition to their diet versus rules of what not to eat. This combats the alarming rate of child obesity in our community. We use culinary arts to enhance skills in writing, math, and science as well as to create an open dialogue about life issues.”
Real Life Poets are feeding the soul of this community in more ways than one. Taylor says, “We realized that our gifts were meant to be used for more than just showing off or hand claps and finger snaps.” Instead of seeking to make money by going on the road and performing so that they can sell their own poetry CDs, Real Life Poets have chosen to give up getting on the mic for themselves, devoting their own personal time to help mentor the youth in our community and to help storm survivors heal by giving them a chance to express themselves. As a nonprofit organization, they receive most of their funding through small grants, donations, and event fundraising. “Fundraising is difficult for all nonprofits in these rough economic times but for the arts especially. But we continue to heighten the awareness of our organization and we are confident that people will see the value that the cultural arts have in a child’s overall development.”
Despite having Emmy-award winning artists as members, the Real Life Poets want to stay in Birmingham to heal their community. Patrick Johnson, the co-chair of the group’s board of directors, was personally touched by the April tornadoes. The house that he shared with his family in Pleasant Grove was destroyed in the storms. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Real Life Poets are so involved in their community and want to stay close to home. “We experienced firsthand the destruction and also the will of the community to stand together as one,” Taylor says. With the guidance and inspiration that will be provided by the Real Life Poets, the upcoming storm writing workshops in November and January will give Birmingham’s community a voice, a chance to heal, and an opportunity for residents from different backgrounds to come together over a tragic but common bond like they have done so many times in the past. There are so many voices that need to be heard in our community: the voices of the youth, and the voices of the storm survivors, not just mine at all the poetry open mics and slams I go to.
To make reservations to attend either of the two storm writing workshops, to donate, or for more information on Real Life Poets, visit www.reallifepoets.org or email Taylor at email@example.com. To find out more about Real Life’s poetry workshop for teens held the first Saturday of every month at the central branch of the Birmingham Public Library, or for more information on the storm writing workshops, you can also visit www.jclc.org.