Festival of poetry and storytelling comes to virtual Edmonds Center for Arts stage Dec. 3

Robin Sanders

With a focus on issues ranging from the global health crisis to racial injustice to the power of love, the Edmonds Center for the Arts will bring together professional artists and youth for a virtual festival of poetry and storytelling Thursday, Dec. 3.

The We Speak event, which starts at 7:30 p.m., will feature artists Robin “Bino” Sanders, Kealoha, Shane Koyczan, Andrea Gibson and Jericho Brown – each of whom will perform at the festival through prerecorded presentations – plus two student finalists selected from an earlier youth poetry slam competition.

RobiSanders, founder and director of Out Loud Artistry, integrates the use of audible imagery and kinetic storytelling for an original eclectic style of performance. “I’m inspired by having the chance to represent the underserved and the unseen,” Sanders said in an interview last week.

“So many people were telling our stories from their point of view and many times that was from the place of oppression, but that is not the whole story,” she said. “I want to be in charge of the story and that is why I share. I owe it to my children; my children need to know their history and they are history.”

As an integrated artist, Sanders sees different elements of the story being told through a variety of art forms, and said that knowing how to do that comes naturally for her. “It depends on what I want to say; sometimes it’s better with words and sometimes it’s better with movement,” she said. “Movement comes easier than writing, but with writing I get to paint pictures with words and to connect with myself.”

Currently Sanders tours with the movement artist collective, Movement Art IS, as the featured spoken word poet, writer and education director. Her work is rooted in the hip-hop experience and expression with a West African dance influence. Sanders mentors artists throughout the country and currently works as the director of Out Loud Artistry and as a writing interventionist at Florida’s Somerset Oaks Academy.

Kealoaha (Photo by Ronen Zilberman)

Kealoaha, a poet and storyteller who has twice performed at the White House and is the first Poet Laureate of Hawaii, started his professional career as a nuclear engineer. But once he was introduced to poetry, it changed his focus entirely.

“Best decision I’ve made was to focus on the spoken word; my journal is my therapist.” Kealoha said last week.

Asked how he connects nuclear engineering and the spoken word, Kealoha replied that “an engineer breaks things down into smaller components for a solution and I use a similar approach in my poetry, whether it is love, the way we treat each other, or something political – I break that concept up into smaller parts using poetic tools to keep the audience interested.”

The message he conveys through his writing is one of love, and noted that his full name Kealohapau’ole (He was born Steven Kealohapauole Hong-Ming Wong) literally means love, the never-ending love. In fact, he says his mission and responsibility is to live in such a way that embodies that love.  “I subscribe to science and write from the scientific perspective of where we came from 13.8 million years ago.  I explained human creation to my son through poetry.”

Kealoaha has written The Story of Everything,” a movie that will premiere  in 2021 and recounts human existence from the Big Bang until now using poetry, visual arts, chanting and art as forms of genuine expression.

Shane Koyczan (Photo by Brenda Lee)

We Speak performer Shane Koyczan, who will also take the virtual stage on Dec. 3, said: “I get excited about the genesis of an idea.” The Canadian spoken-word poet and writer, who has published several books of poetry, has an animated video of his poem, To This Day, which addresses the impact of bullying he and others have experienced.

Koyczan, who believes that inspiration comes from the outside rather than within, said, “I love the writing process, and enjoy the editing and adding the music to projects too.  I love to collaborate because there is a certain synergy that happens when you collaborate; when you have connections with people it draws a lot of energy.”

Koyczan was on tour in Seattle when COVID-19 hit and had to go back home to Canada, ending his 2020 tour. He is working on a poetry piece that addresses the impacts of COVID-19 and what people are dealing with to get through it. When thinking of our world and human survival instincts, Koyczan said he remembers the late American astronomer Carl Sagan and his pale blue dot theory. “Sometimes we forget how small we are; our sense of wonder has kind of evaporated,” Koyczan said.

Andrea Gibson

Another We Speak performer, Andrea Gibson, is the author of six books and the first poet to win the Women of the World Poetry Slam competition in Detroit in 2008.“Spoken word is an art form that is so connected,” Gibson said during an interview last week. “It’s almost as if the audience is pulling the poem out of you, so it feels like it’s connecting people.”

Gibson, who has worked as a teacher and construction worker and prefers a gender-neutral pronoun, never imagined that they could make a living as a poetry slam artist.

“I was always writing but we weren’t taught we could do it for a living,” Gibson said. “I love to comfort the disturbed and folks already ‘woke’ to the concept of new ideas they may have not been exposed to previously. In the end I want my heart to be covered with stretch marks; I hope when people read or hear my art, they feel their hearts grow.”

Gibson admits they have no idea what the future may hold for their art, but says, “As long as it keeps scaring me and it takes courage, I will continue to do it.”

Jericho Brown

The final professional artist in the We Speak Festival is Jericho Brown, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who has had poems appear in The New Republic, Oxford American, The Best American Poetry and The Nation. Brown has taught at numerous conferences and workshops and is currently an associate professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University in Atlanta.

The two youth who will perform during the Dec. 3 event – PJ Sorem and Jennifer Pena — were named finalists in the ECA’s We Speak Poetry Slam Competition for youth aged 13-21, held this fall. Poetry performance youth artists were invited to write about issues and concerns for the year 2020 that included, but weren’t limited to, Black Lives Matter, the global health crisis, LGBTQ, indigenous people and the racial justice movement.

To help them prepare for their We Speak performance Dec. 3, Sorem and Pena received a 30-minute virtual mentorship session with Kealoha on the finer elements of movement and performing.

PJ Sorem

Sorem, 17, a junior at Tacoma Science and Math institute who prefers a gender-neutral pronoun, enjoyed writing in middle school and says that Shane Koyczan inspired them a lot.

“I saw him perform and thought, ‘I want to do that,“” Sorem said. “It all started for me with a poetry assignment in school, and then I started to watch Slam competitions on YouTube and thought they were awesome.”

Sorem, who has competed twice in the Write 253’s Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam in Tacoma, said that they used to write poems for the audience but now they like sharing their thoughts as a genuine expression of who they are.

“I like to use a lot of alliteration or to use the same words that have different meanings, that style of writing appeals to me,” Sorem said.

Sorem had just completed a session with Kealoha, and described it as surreal. “It was nice working with him – we did a lot of the blocking that comes with spoken word poetry,” Sorem said. “My poem focuses on my identity as a non-binary person – how the world views me and how I view the world. I see writing in my future; regardless of what I’m doing I will continue writing.”

Jennifer Peña

Youth performer Jennifer Peña that “God is my motivation.” The 19-year-old explained her decision “to write about this situation we are in (COVID-19) because people were blinded by the materialist things of this world. I consider myself to be very religious as a Seventh Day Adventist, and my inspiration comes from the Bible.”

Peña, a freshman at Everett Community College studying human services, has loved writing since she was 13 years old. While both writing and soccer interested her, Peña said that writing presented more opportunities, “It’s something I love to do, and I hope for the best with it; I hope my message can hit and make an impact on people.”

That impact, according to Peña , is that people need to get closer to God now before it is too late, and the poem she will perform, “It’s Time,” reflects that belief.

The We Speak Festival is sponsored by Rick and Charlotte Canning, Leslie and Mike Foley, Jan and Benny Teal, and the educational and outreach programs are made possible by the Hazel Miller Foundation and Edmonds Arts Commission.

Tickets for the Dec. 3 event are pay what you can, and can be purchased here.

—  By Misha Carter

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