University City

Chapel Hill-based poetry group helps youth find spoken-word skills

Five years ago, Will McInerney’s mind functioned with all the systematic logic of a circuit board.

In his studies as an electrical engineering major at N.C. State University, every cause had to have an effect. Every end result had to lead back to a planned beginning.

But then one day, for no rhyme or reason, he did something far off his normal grid.

“I’m a very logical person,” said McInerney. “But for some weird reason, I decided to write a poem. And then for some strange reason, not like me at all, I decided to share that poem.”

That moment on stage at a poetry slam – a judged contest in front of an audience – transformed McInerney. He’s now an award-winning professional poet and executive director of Sacrificial Poets, a spoken word organization based in Chapel Hill.

The nonprofit group travels the country giving youth the tools to awaken their own spoken words, the ones that often are lying dormant within them.

On Nov.14-16, the UNC Charlotte Department of Theatre brought the performance poets to Charlotte for a three-day residency that included workshops for local high school and college students.

Spoken-word poetry has existed for thousands of years. Orators of the past would use rhyme and meter not only to memorize large chunks of information, but also to entertain the largely illiterate public at the time.

Epic poems like Homer’s “Odyssey,” which loses much of its rhyming elements in translation, remains one of the best-known examples today.

In the centuries since Homer, poetry has taken different forms, but the rhyming, the meter, the self-expression and the entertainment value have stayed the same, even if the subject matter has changed.

“When I was a kid, I was always into hip-hop,” said Kane Smego, Sacrificial Poets artistic director. “So I was writing rhymes and poems before I even knew I was writing poems.”

Smego has taught the workshops all over the country. Last year, Sacrificial Poets worked with 8,000 kids in 33 schools, through assemblies, one-day workshops and afterschool programs.

The idea isn’t to create legions of professional poets. The techniques they teach foster writing, analytical and public speaking skills.

“Our workshops are designed to make you a better engineer, a better doctor, a better nurse, a better store clerk,” said Smego. “We’re the spark, but ultimately we’re trying to give them the tools and the tricks and the tips to enhance them with whatever they want to do.”

For many of the kids they reach, it’s a challenge just to get through the school day.

“Some kids have all these toxic things they have to deal with, just getting from home to bus stop,” said Starr Seward, program coordinator for Sacrificial Poets.

“If you leave that kind of dirt and trash inside of you, it becomes cancerous,” she said. “I think poetry is one of those ways of removing it, even if it’s just a poem at a time.”

McInerney said he could relate.

“I didn’t like school. I didn’t feel like I fit in,” he said. Poetry eased that, he said, but not in the way most people would assume. “What hooked me wasn’t the art form, but the community.

“For the first time, I felt included and welcomed, praised and celebrated.”