On a recent Saturday afternoon at the McQuixote Coffee and Books in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood, past the usual sounds of an espresso grinder and indie rock mixed with conversation, one could hear impassioned slam-style poetry.
“They say Muhammad Ali was as much talk as punch,
that he could move a nation with a rhyme,
that he spoke so strong
people gathered in crowds to see him weak,
the Louisville Lip.”
High school senior Mackenzie Berry, 17, was reading her ode to The Greatest as part of a workshop with Young Poets of Louisville. The nonprofit is designed to teach the craft of poetry and provide young people with a creative outlet. The group offers free workshops for teenagers twice a month.
There were three students at this workshop: Mackenzie, a student at DuPont Manual High School; Jalen Posey from Central High School; and Alex Edison from Eastern High School.
Lance Newman, a poet, teacher and performer, led the workshop. Newman works with young people in a variety of capacities, including outreach work with Roots and Wings, a new poetry-based performance group.
“When you first did that poem at the slam, I wanted Muhammad Ali energy,” he said to Mackenzie.
While much of Newman’s advice centered on her delivery — that day’s workshop focused on performance — he also talked to the kids about rhythm, rhyme, imagery, intention and all the other tools a poet might employ. Mackenzie wasn’t the only one speaking. The students chimed in offering their responses and thoughts on each other’s work, as in a traditional workshop.
Newman advises the group in a variety of ways, but he isn’t the person in charge. That job falls to Mackenzie, Young Poets’ founder.
She discovered slam poetry through YouTube before trying it herself. She decided to get involved in the scene as more than a poet after working with the Louisville Youth Philanthropy Council, which brings high school students into the philanthropy process.
“The spark was seeing the movement of spoken word, and what made me believe that I could do it was the Louisville Youth Philanthropy Council,” Mackenzie said.
She approached facilitators at LYPC with the idea to establish a poetry-focused nonprofit, and they suggested she start by throwing a slam.
The idea stuck.
Mackenzie was emboldened by the first slam’s success and got busy putting Young Poets on its feet. She locked down her board of directors and got sponsorship through the Buttafly Center, a Louisville nonprofit dedicated to empowering women.
During a recent Floetic Friday — Young Poets’ monthly slam series at the Local Speed — the room crackled with energy from kids, parents and poets. Seven young people competed for bragging rights and T-shirts. The crowd was rowdy and excited as Newman emceed, telling jokes and announcing scores.
Emilee McCubbins, a poet, student, and two-time winner of the Floetic Friday Slam, said in addition to providing good public speaking experience, slams give teens an emotional outlet.
“I know that just being able to sort of talk about things, and talk issues through that are going on in your life, has a very cathartic sense to it,” she said.
Beyond the emotional impact, Mackenzie said she wants Young Poets to keep putting money into the arts community.
She’s competing for grants and trying to secure funds to help grow programming. Grant funding already helps pay teachers for the workshops, as well as photographers, musical guests and hosts for the poetry slams.
“For people who don’t usually see monetary benefit for their talent — a lot of poets have 9-to-5s — leading the workshops is one way to get a little more financial support for what they’re doing,” she said.
Teachers provide proposals and resumes, as well as submitting to a background check, for a chance to work with Young Poets. They can submit proposals for a single workshop or a series, such as a recent one focused on social justice in poetry.
A teacher and activist, Newman said he doesn’t often see enthusiasm like Mackenzie’s.
“You don’t even know how excited I was when she created it,” he said.