Students with Craven Early College take their poetry from the classroom to the stage. We visit during an open mic night event in New Bern.
Three local poets are hoping to restore a once vibrant poetry community in New Bern. Sam Love is a semi-retired yoga instructor who lives in the colonial capital.
“New Bern was nicknamed the Athens of the South because there was so much poetry activity here. That’s how the Athens Theater got its name. Local papers carried poets on a regular basis. Sometimes, the poets would get into like verbal battles with each other.”
Similar to what we call slam poetry today. Love, along with Meg Wetherington and Alan Welch were inspired to start the group Nexus Poets after reading poetry written by New Bernians more than 200 years ago.
“poems about New Bern and the Trent and Neuse River over history, different times, Spanish Civil War, Civil War, the Depression, The Great Fire of New Bern. And you really got a feeling for the history of New Bern just by listening to the way local poets described it.”
Whether documenting historical events, relationships, politics, environmental issues or personal stories, Nexus Poets are giving eastern North Carolinians a stage for their ideas. We visited a poetry open mic night in downtown New Bern Tuesday.
The dimly lit Trent River Coffee House held a standing room only crowd, some sitting, others standing all listening to poetry intently.
“There is no way to fix it in my case, and there never will be. For my crookedness will always be with me. And I am the one who has the joy of living with it. Living with its annoyance, living with its setbacks, and living with its discomforts. And it is the reason why I am that I am.”
Buxton Ward is a 10th grader at Craven Early College. His poem “Crooked as a Corkscrew.”
“It was a beat poem inspired by my scoliosis that I have and that over time it has become quite the chore to have to deal with and it certainly has held me back many times in life.”
Buxton’s poem comes as a class assignment from Craven Early College English Teacher Amanda Smith. Smith attends open mic night every month, bribing her students with extra credit if they come. She says her students were invited to share their poems at the open mic night.
“I had no prior knowledge that Sam Love was going to email me and catch me in yoga one day and say So I hear your students are learning beat poetry. I told a couple of yogi friends about this and apparently it got around and Sam hears everything.”
Over the Fall semester, students studied American reform movements and beat poetry inspired by that era. Focusing on Allan Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” Smith asked her students to recreate the poem sharing their own emotions and ideas.
"It’s almost like a mad lib assignment. But I encouraged them to take the Sunflower Sutra and instead of these two opposing images within the poem, sunflower verses locomotive, which is what Ginsberg was talking about. Make this something else that was your sutra. A sunflower has no meaning to me, why are you going to tell me it’s a sun flower. What is it? Give me something that has meaning to you. Something that is not man made, has nothing to do with man what so ever. And then tell me what you see in society that’s pushing that down.”
After students read their amended poems aloud in class, Smith asked her students to try their hand at an original beat poem with attitude.
“You get them in the mood to listen to poetry, and then to read poetry, and then you tell them that they get to be angry on a sheet of paper and they get to rant. And this is kind of a shy group because they just look at you like what do you mean I get to be angry? I get to write whatever I want to write on this sheet of paper.”
Smith says some students were hesitant, but began to open up the more they wrote. Leigh Ann Wyrick is a 10th grader at Craven Early College.
“My mom was diagnosed during the summer with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. And it really made me upset because she’s my life and I love her and I wrote it in honor of her.”
"my mommy has always been there for me. She was there for me when he wasn't. She fed me when he didn't. She was at home, sober, while he wasn't. So why did she deserve this? To be sick, to be dying. She has protected me my whole life. But when she needs me, when she needs me most, I can't help."
Leigh Ann says she’s written poetry before, but it was this class assignment that gave her the confidence to believe her words were powerful. Especially when she shared the poem with her mom.
“She cried, she didn’t say anything. She just gave me a really long hug and we just sat there for a while.”
For many students, this class assignment was the first time they’ve written poetry. 10th grader Cylest Hacker shares an experience where she held a door for someone who didn’t acknowledge her courtesy.
“I feel like it’s something everyone can relate to and I feel like sometimes people are caught up in things and they don’t really take the time to like sit down and really enjoy life.”
"I waited until you are through. But you are not through, aimlessly yapping on the phone. I let the door close. Cold heartless things we call humans. Could we put something in front of us? No, that's too complicated..."
After writing and sharing her first poem with the crowd at Trent River Coffee Company, Cylest says she has found her creative outlet.
“I can relate to it and put my feelings into it so I feel like it’s something I can really enjoy. I’m not creative in any other way but I feel like I’m able to be myself when I write poems.”
If you enjoy listening to poetry or have some to share, the next First Tuesday Poetry Open Mic night is February 3rd at the Trent River Coffee Company in downtown New Bern. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, go to ENC events at publicradioeast.org. On January 16th, three students with Craven Early College will be competing in the Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest. The event takes place at Orringer Auditorium at 7 pm and is free and open to the public.