Always a literary kind of town, Savannah has been blessed with several such events in recent months, and an exciting event that was new last year is returning for another run.
The Second Annual Savannah Spoken Word Festival will be held May 26, 27 and 28.
This festival is different from most other poetry festivals in that it puts an emphasis on spoken word instead of traditional text work. While it will have a high concentration of performance poetry, it also will feature activities for the whole family.
The festival is sponsored by the Spitfire Poetry Group.
“We noticed that in Savannah there were a lot of different festivals with different themes,” says RenaZance, one of Spitfire’s founders. “But there was never anything on spoken word. We wanted to put on a festival celebrating spoken word.”
The result was Savannah’s first-ever spoken word festival. “Last year’s festival was almost impromptu, but it was a humongous success,” RenaZance says. “We decided to make it an annual event.”
Clinton D. Powell also is a founder of the Spitfire Poetry Group. While he says the turnout last year could have been larger, he believes the festival will continue to grow every year.
“As individuals actually involved in it, we learned a lot from just putting it together,” Powell says. “It was definitely enjoyable. It was like watching a little child coming into its own.”
With time, the festival could grow into a powerhouse of performance poetry. “To do the festival the way we really envision it, we need to get contributions from the community and to find some sponsors. We were not able to obtain sponsors this year, but we need to do that to get what is really needed,” RenaZance says.
“What we want to do is to bring in more of the best spoken word artists, some awesome poets, from around the country. But some things start slow and build momentum.”
This year’s festival will feature performances by local artists, a workshop and other events, including an appearance by Black Ice of Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry Jam. “There will be a lot of good stuff,” RenaZance says.
“This spoken word festival is really, really important to me,” he says. “It’s something that celebrates an underground culture that not a lot of people know about. With more attention given to it, it will grow.”
This year’s headliner, Black Ice, was born Lamar Manson in Philadelphia. He began performing spoken word in 1994 and perfected his craft on the streets of North Philly.
Russell Simmons discovered Black Ice at New York’s Soul Café when he was searching for artists for his hit HBO show, which features an ensemble of diverse spoken word artists.
Black Ice became the first spoken-word artist to be signed to Simmons’ Def Jam Records, and he also was a cast member of the Tony Award-winning Broadway show Def Poetry Jam. He has appeared on all three seasons of the television program.
The festival will be similar to last year’s, with one addition. “We added a workshop,” Powell says. “We’ll talk about performance poetry and the way different artists approach spoken word poetry.”
The workshop will be conducted by award-winning writer and poet Aberjhani, winner of this year’s Connect Savannah “Best of Savannah” readers’ poll for Best Poet/Spoken Word Artist.
“Aberjhani had a big impact on me early on,” Powell says. “He is one of the very early influences in Savannah spoken word.” Powell says Spitfire plans to see that the festival continues to grow. “We would definitely like to have a lot more sponsors and become more involved in the community,” he says.
“Last night, I went to the Poetry Society of Georgia,” Powell says. “It was a whole different type of crowd there. I want to show how the two (different kinds of poetry) can be brought together.”
Some mainstream poets are somewhat disapproving of spoken word. Not Mary C. Kim, the author of a poetry chapbook, Silken Purse, and a multi-genre self-help book called Karma Suture.
Kim recently helped organize the first community-based Asian American literary events and one of the first gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual literary events held in Savannah. “I’m more of a print poet,” she says.
“Spoken word is different, but it’s still a poetic experience and it needs to be validated,” Kim says. “It draws in a lot of communal voices that need to be heard.
“Def Poetry Jam is incredible. There has been some scholarly evidence that has shown that print media is kind of on the wane. They must compete with visual, computer and different forms of media,” Kim says. “Spoken word is another medium that appeals especially to young people. who may feel locked out of traditional print media.”
The Spitfire Poetry Group invited Kim to participate in the spoken word festival, and she readily accepted. “I’m co-hosting the kickoff event along with Wes, one of the Spitfire members,” she says.
“We’ll start with a couple of performances by Wes and myself to set the tone and make everyone feel welcome and included,” Kim says. “Then we’ll open the floor to audience members. Clinton and the other Spitfire members will probably be there.”
Kim organized the GLBT literature event, which was held May 19 at Cafe Ambrosia, because nothing like it had ever been held in Savannah. “I felt one was needed,” she says. We might not have a lot of people the first time, but it will grow from there. It’s the same thing with the spoken word festival.”
Kim’s co-host, Wes, believes the festival will not just grow, it will explode into a major cultural event.
“I hope someday we won’t just have one in Savannah, but everywhere,” she says. “We’ll load up a bus and go to New Orleans and have a festival there. Or they’ll load up a bus and come to Savannah. I really believe that’s what it’s going to be someday. Just like people come down for St. Patrick’s Day, they’ll come for the spoken word festival. We’ll see poetry grow that big.”
April Dobbs, music director and on-air personality “Baby Girl” at E-93 radio, will host the awards show. “The awards show comes at the end of Poetry Appreciation Month and recognizes the phenomenal spoken word artists we have right here in Savannah,” she says.
“Spoken word is so prominent right now,” Dobbs says. “We recognize it as an art and try to bring the whole genre under the light. There are a lot of artists in the city and it is easy to overlook the poets.”
Dobbs encourages people to come out for the festival. “We had great participation last year,” she says. “I know it can be even bigger this year. People were really angry after the fact last year because they didn’t know about it in advance and missed it,” Dobbs says. “I encourage everyone to come out, and tell a friend. There are positive events going on. This is a great event people will enjoy.”
Spoken word in Savannah started with a handful of open mic events and grew into a whole underground scene, thanks largely to the Spitfire Poetry Group’s efforts.
A part of the natural evolution of poetry that includes hip-hop, spoken word is its own thing. It’s intense, it’s real, and local spoken word artists are gaining a national reputation for their performances.
The Spitfire Poetry Group was founded in 2000. The group’s logo features a microphone with smoke rising from it, and the name Spitfire is meant to convey that the members are “spitting fire” when they perform -- in other words, doing a hell of a good job.
“Spitfire Poetry really started with Clinton and myself,” RenaZance says. “I started doing open mics. It’s such an energy-filled experience that I wanted to duplicate it and it swelled and grew.”
The group has accomplished a lot in just six years. “One key aspect is that we go into the community and reach out to kids and other members of the community,” RenaZance says.
“We go to other poetry slams in other cities,” he says. “Savannah was lacking all that. We didn’t have anything like it going on, so we decided to hold some poetry slams and open mics. Those people who were really good at spoken word united together to make Spitfire Poetry.”
Almost immediately, the group earned regional recognition. Through a determined effort to put Savannah on the map, the members now have earned national recognition.
“We’ve been all over the country representing Savannah -- Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta,” RenaZance says. “A lot of people outside of Savannah know about Spitfire Poetry.”
Some of the best-known spoken word artists are coming to Savannah as a result. “All types of people, the top tier of spoken word artists, are coming to Savannah because of Spirfire and the people involved with it,” RenaZance says.
In addition to performing, the group has concentrated on education. Powell was a drama instructor at Gadsen Elementary School before returning to school himself.
“Having an educational background, I need an outlet for students,” he says. “We pride ourselves on giving kids something they will have for the rest of their lives. Our kids do call us and ask questions about poems they are writing or intend to write.”
“One of the things we want to concentrate on is going into schools and introducing children to spoken word,” RenaZance says.
“This generation is called the lost generation. There are a bunch of children in elementary and middle school who have never heard of spoken word,” he says. “We want them to know there is an alternative to using their fists and violence.”
The Spitfire program is unique among school outreach programs. “Anyone in the system sees different programs that come into our schools that are designed to help influence our students,” Powell says.
Spitfire’s workshops are designed to reach those children who want to communicate their feelings, hopes, dreams, fears and impressions of life. “Not everybody is going to be an athlete,” Powell says.
“If you can find what is important to them, kids really respond to that,” he says. “It solves a whole lot of things and helps in the learning process. It shows kids they can use their hands to create, not to destroy. That’s been a mainstay of our group.”
Group members enjoy working with children. “It’s really refreshing and validating to go into the schools,” RenaZance says. “Hopefully, it will turn their lives around. Maybe by the time they get to my age, there will be a plethora of RenaZances and Clinton D. Powells.”
The educational outreach has grown considerably since its inception. “We started going into one or two schools seven years ago,” RenaZance says.
“Now we’re at schools every week. We’ve been to large pep rallies, school assemblies, workshops. We also want to work with kids outside of Savannah. We’ve already been to Columbus, Claxton, Augusta and outside rural areas. We started at one school in Columbus and want to block out time to be able to serve all schools in Columbus.”
Teachers and other school personnel have seen Spitfire members at conferences and recognize the powerful impact spoken word can have on students. But it also can involve people of all ages -- and already does, says Powell.
“That’s one thing about spoken word,” he says. “In some areas, the average age (of participants) may be 30, while other areas it will be a whole different age.
“Some of the better spoken word artists are older,” Powell says. “They’ve been through all the trials and tribulations in life, and they have more to write about.”
No matter what age group they are working with, Spitfire hopes to continue its community outreach.
“We’re giving back,” Powell says. “We have goals, and we just enjoy writing.”
“Spoken word has been around for quite some time,” Kim says.
“I feel every culture has its own oral tradition. Here in the states, particularly in the South, the strongest oral tradition tends to be African-American. If you think about their history abstractly as a people who were forbidden to read and write, what kinds of communication are going to flourish? (Oppression) unleashed a powerful oratory.”
With RenaZance, Dobbs hosts a weekly event called Spoken Word Wednesday at the Tropicana nightclub on Broughton Street. It starts at 10 p.m., with the doors opening at 9 p.m.
“We’ve been doing that more than two years now,” Dobbs says. “I do poetry occasionally. I have a very, very intimate connection with Spitfire.”
Spoken word gives people the chance to express their deepest, most heartfelt emotions. “It’s a needed outlet right now, when you consider the everyday things that can get under your skin,” Dobbs says.
“There are shootings at schools, frustration at work, people are underpaid, there are crazy drivers on the streets,” she says. “We’ve almost gotten close to what happens in the larger cities.
“Because the city is growing, it’s only natural people want to express themselves,” Dobbs says. “Savannah is growing. It is extremely diverse.
“Also, people are looking for something different to do,” she says. “So many people are looking into the arts now more than ever. Everyone needs to express themselves from time to time.”
Local spoken word artists know the importance of self-expression.
“The word ‘renaissance’ actually means ‘rebirth,’” RenaZance says. “I had a lot of difficulties when I was young and I got into trouble. Spoken word made me see that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s funny how it came about. I also sing. I started off singing and writing songs for a group called Poetic Sounds. In 1996, there was an open mic event and all my friends pushed me up and pushed me up,” RenaZance says.
“I recited one of my songs and got a standing ovation. After that, I was addicted.”
RenaZance has to be one of the busiest people in Savannah. “I’m probably the most overworked member of Spitfire Poetry Group,” he says.
“I have a full-time job as a control-room operator, I run a non-profit organization and I do three radio shows at Savannah State. I’m a day worker, but do poetry readings at night.
“I’ve started a new event, Sunday Sessions, that’s held every Sunday night at Vero 44,” RenaZance says. “Visual artists transform poems into visual pieces. It’s really an awesome evening, hanging out with all these artists. It’s a melting pot for energy, and every Sunday night, it boils over.”
Wes also stays busy. She’s a social worker, owner of a modeling and talent agency, a dance teacher and owner of a dance studio, a student at Savannah Technical College studying marketing and a member of the Sankofa Dance Troupe and Spitfire Poetry Group.
“I went to an open mic and RenaZance saw me and asked me if I wanted to join the group,” Wes says. “I went to another open mic to check it out and realized I really wanted to be a part of this group.”
In addition to spoken word, Powell also works in theater.
“I think I’ve always written poetry,” he says. “That led me to doing different things. But theater is my background, where I get some of my performance art skills from. Both are so intertwined.”
Spoken word has had a great impact on Powell. “Just being able to express yourself and speak your feelings is important,” he says.
“I think it is something that especially appeals to youth and those people who don’t have a voice. When you tell them they have a voice and can say whatever they want, they open up and tell you how they feel.”
Powell takes great pride in Spitfire’s junior group, whose members have won top awards at competitions.
“They’ve gone to Jacksonville and done stuff here,” he says. “They are preparing now to do different things in the city and they hope to go to Birmingham, Ala.
“They practice probably harder than the adult group,” Powell says. “I am so proud of them. They are pretty inclusive. They help everyone along and show them what to do. If you aren’t ready (to perform), they try to coax you along.”
Powell particularly wants to introduce people to poetry, which he says is a misunderstood art form. “Some people think poetry is in a box, that only certain people can do it,” he says. “It’s not in a box. Everyone has their own form of expression.
“As one of the older poets, it is refreshing to see all the young poets who are coming up behind us,” Powell says. “I’m glad to see how seriously they are involved in their craft.”
Kim says spoken word has the potential to appeal to everyone.
“It’s exciting and pretty darn democratic,” she says. “A butcher, a baker, a waitress, a cop can compete and randomly selected judges select the winners. It’s more democratic and diverse than traditional media.
“Print media needs to keep up,” Kim says. “It needs to be aware it doesn’t hold a monopoly any more and needs to step up and make changes. I take it as a positive sign. Good spoken word artists have good writing skills as well as good delivery.”
Wes takes inspiration from virtually everything when she is writing poetry.
“It can be inspiring to me seeing a blue jay in the tree or an argument between two people in the park. I watch how people act, how they carry themselves and how they deal with things. Day-to-day life is poetry for me.”
Spoken word has exploded in popularity in recent years, which doesn’t surprise Wes.
“To be honest, I think it’s 50 percent hype. Anything that’s new, people try to get to be a part of it,” she says.
“But the other 50 percent really have a passion for it. It’s an energy and you can’t put a price on it. For me personally, it’s therapy.”
The Second Annual Savannah Spoken Word Festival will be held May 26, 27 and 28. The festival will open Friday at 8 p.m. with an Open Mic Welcoming Ceremony at Metro Coffee, 402 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. It will be hosted by Wes, a member of the Spitfire Poetry Group, and poet and professor Mary C. Kim.
All Slam Saturday will feature a Youth Poetry Slam at Myers Middle School with competitions for elementary students from 10 a.m. to noon, middle school students from 12:30-2:30 p.m. and a high school competition from 3:30-5 p.m. An Adult Slam Poetry Competition will be held at 8:30 p.m. at the Starland Theater at 41st and Bull streets. Admission to the adult competition is $5.
On Sunday at noon, a spoken word performance workshop will be hosted by Spitfire member Aberjhani at The Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave. At 8:30 p.m., the Closing Ceremony and Awards Show will be held at Vero 44, 44 Bull St. The headliner is Black Ice, award-winning spoken word artist and star of Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry Jam, and the show will be hosted by April Dobbs.
Visit www.spitfirepoetrygroup.com, email Renazance_man@msn.com or
email@example.com or call 508-2998 or 704-3586.