By Megan Gassaway
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
Have you ever met the yellow power ranger? Ever held hands with him at the bus stop, or wrestled with him in the basement once? I have. The Yellow Power Ranger and I used to be best friends…
Julia McKeown stands before an audience of peers, teachers and poetry enthusiasts. The stage is empty except for a microphone. She needs no props or backdrops. Her weapon is her voice.
McKeown is one of 10 teenagers who participated in Sacrificial Poets’ February Youth Qualifier at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham on Friday, Feb. 25. The slam, or poetry competition, is only one of several outlets for Sacrificial Poets.
“It’s a spoken word poetry organization geared towards youth,” said Sacrificial Poets’ artistic director Kane Smego, 25. “It is a for-youth, by-youth organization.”
Sacrificial Poets is North Carolina’s premier youth poetry organization and the state’s only internationally competing youth performance poetry team, according to the Sacrificial Poets website.
Originally named the Chapel Hill Slam Team, the group has since spread to Durham and Carrboro. It hosts events at the Carrboro Century Center, performs at Festifall and works closely with poetry clubs at local high schools.
As the group evolved, the team shed the name Chapel Hill Slam Team and adopted Sacrificial Poets, which honors a founding member and close friend of the group, Ira Yarmolenko, who died in May 2008. The name also acknowledges the role of the “sacrificial poet,” a poet who makes a sacrifice by performing a poem that acts as the scoring standard for a competition.
While the Sacrificial Poets host slams and attend competitions, its focus is on open mics and other non-competitive poetry events. In this mission, Sacrificial Poets help youth to “construct a platform” for community organizing and building.
“For me, what we try to convey is a sense of sharing identity,” Smego said.
But when the poets stand before the microphone, they are no longer constricted to others’ perceptions. They take their identity into their own hands.
“Poetry is therapy,” Smego said. “Spoken word is an amazing tool for community building because it helps create bonds and webs of understanding that revolve around who people say they are.”
Smego said spoken word poetry is an “outlet for energy” and a place to share struggles and triumphs.
Whereas sports like basketball build community around a shared goal, poetry creates a unique community where interests intersect on a deeper level, Smego says.
“The thing we’re united around, the actual thing we share in common is a mechanism for getting to know ourselves,” Smego says.
The yellow power ranger and I were best friends, but you can’t catch childhood and put it in a jar. So we chased it like the wind in the summer, racing each other around the playground like tornadoes. We found the eye of the storm in our imagination…
“A lot of my writing comes from my emotions,” said McKeown, who has written about topics including sex and society, race and friendship. McKeown said the poem “Power Ranger” stems from a personal experience.
But McKeown does not write just to benefit herself; she hopes that others will relate to her poetry.
McKeown moved from the small town of Ashland, Mass., after her freshman year of high school. When she arrived in Chapel Hill, she didn’t know anyone and felt lost.
“I moved to Chapel Hill where standards were so high,” McKeown said. “I felt like I was falling off the face of the Earth.”
McKeown was introduced to spoken word poetry when Sacrificial Poets executive director and founding member CJ Suitt, 24, performed for an English class at Chapel Hill High. Following Suitt’s presentation, the teacher assigned a poetry project to students. McKeown not only wrote a poem for the class — she decided to perform the poem at a local slam.
She didn’t stop there. McKeown continued to write and perform her poetry, and, after coaching from Suitt, McKeown qualified for Sacrificial Poets’ 2010 Final Slam.
“I owe those guys, like, everything,” McKeown says about Sacrificial Poets. “The poetry they taught me to do was my outlet.”
The group provided McKeown emotional support, but also gave her a community.
“They support me and validate me,” McKeown said. “There’s an automatic community of people who support you. There’s stomping, clapping, snapping encouragement when you go on stage.”
Poetry has also forced McKeown to redefine her outlook on the world.
“Doing poetry, you reassess the way that you judge people. People get on stage and spill their hearts,” McKeown said. “When you get up, it’s about what you spit – the words you use. It’s like the entire audience is blind.”
I was in love with the yellow power ranger, but cartoon characters can’t quite reciprocate because they’re two–, or in your case, one–dimensional…
“Sacrificial Poets empowers youth to tell their stories and speak their truths,” says Mackensie Malkemes, a supporter of the group and a creative writing and English teacher at Carrboro High. “The focus on both exposing and provinding a call-to-action for basically every social justice issue one could think of is one of my favorite aspects of the group’s work. The members are involved in the community and inspire others to come together to promote positive change.”
“The Sac Po organization and the people who run it are people who let you tell your stories,” McKeown said. “There’s a general sharing of culture and fears. You feel that connection that is so lacking in society.”
Sacrificial Poets, or “Sac Po,” is seeking change throughout North Carolina, and Carrboro is no exception.
The group has come to fulfill a unique niche within the communities of Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Durham by building community and encouraging self-expression among local youth.
“It really is the only one of its kind in the area,” Malkemes said. “I think Sac Po no only encourages people to speak out about pressing societal and community issues, but the group really serves as a catalyst in producing informed, tolerant, impressive individuals.”
Smego says that at any of the group’s events “you can see a diverse crowd of poets that interact, respect and support each other, who often times would not have otherwise come into contact or forge friendships.”
At Friday’s slam, there was a “representation of black, white, Christian, Muslim, male and female poets,” Smego said.
“We like to think that every event we have is like a classroom where youth teach and learn from each other,” Smego said.
McKeown said that the group serves as a way for local teenagers to become more self-confident.
“Spoken word is no rules, and that is so freeing. You don’t have to rhyme and you don’t have to make sense,” McKeown said. “It’s a really good outlet for teenagers to say who they are and not be ashamed.”
I want to remember the 4-year-old yellow power ranger. I want to remember what it was like to have a best friend.
For more videos from February’s Youth Qualifier, go here: http://www.youtube.com/user/megsie513#p/u. For more Sacrificial Poets videos, go here: http://www.youtube.com/user/sacrificialPoets.