Tag Archives: poetry

Ted Genoways

June 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Award-winning poet, journalist, editor, and author Ted Genoways of Lincoln, Nebraska, has long been recognized for his social justice writing as a contributor to Mother Jones, onEarth, Harper’s and other prestigious publications. While editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, the magazine won numerous national awards. 

His recent nonfiction books—The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food, and This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Farm—expand on his enterprise reporting about the land, the people who work it, and the food we consume from it. The themes of sustainability, big ag versus little ag, over-processing of food, and environmental threats are among many concerns he explores.

He often collaborates on projects with his wife, photographer Mary Anne Andrei.

His penchant for reporting goes back to his boyhood, when he put down stories people told him, even illustrating them, in a stapled “magazine” he produced. His adult work took root in the form of secondhand stories of his paternal grandfather toiling on Nebraska farms and in Omaha meatpacking plants. 

His father noted this precociousness with words and made a pact that if young Ted read a book a week selected for him, he could escape chores. 

“I thought that was a great deal,” Genoways says. “Reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was the first time I remember being completely hooked. After that, I tore through everything Steinbeck wrote, and it made a huge impact on me. I thought, there’s real power in this—if you can figure out how to do it this well.”

Reading classics by Hemingway, Faulkner, and other great authors followed. The work of muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair made an impression. “But those Steinbeck books,” he says, “have always really stuck with me, and I go back to them and they really hold up.”

Exposing injustice—just as Steinbeck did with migrants and Sinclair did with immigrants—is what Genoways does. Nebraska Wesleyan professors Jim Schaffer and the late state poet of Nebraska William Kloefkorn influenced his journalism and poetry, respectively. Genoways doesn’t make hard and fast distinctions between the two forms. Regardless of genre, he practices a form of advocacy journalism but always in service of the truth.

“I’m always starting with the facts and trying to understand how they fit together,” he says. “There’s no question I’ve got a point of view. But I don’t show up with preconceived notions of what the story is.”

He’s drawn to “stories of people at the mercy of the system,” he says, admitting, “I’m interested in the little guy and in how people fight back against the powers that be.”

While working at the Minnesota State Historical Society Press, Genoways released a book of poems, Bullroarer: A Sequence, about his grandfather, and edited Cheri Register’s book Daughter of a Meatpacker. At the Virginia Quarterly, he looked into worker illnesses at a Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota, and the glut of Latinos at a Hormel plant in Fremont, Nebraska. He found a correlation between unsafe conditions due to ever-faster production lines—where only immigrants are willing to do the job—and the pressures brought to bear on company towns with influxes of Spanish-speaking workers and their families, some of them undocumented.

That led to examining the impact “a corporate level decision to run the line faster in order to increase production has up and down the supply chain” and on entire communities. 

“That’s become an ongoing fascination for me,” Genoways says. “I can’t seem to stop coming back to what’s happening in meatpacking towns, which really seem to be on the front line of a lot of change in this country.”

The heated controversy around TransCanada Corp.’s plans for the Keystone XL pipeline ended up as the backdrop for his book, This Blessed Earth. He found “the specter of a foreign corporation coming and taking land by eminent domain” from legacy farmers and ranchers “and telling them they had to take on this environmental risk with few or no guarantees” to be yet another challenge weighing on the backs of producers.

His focus became a fifth-generation Nebraska farm family, the Hammonds, who grow soybeans, and how their struggles mirror all family farmers in terms of “how big to get and how much risk to assume.”

“They were especially intriguing because they were building this solar and wind-powered barn right in the path KXL decided to cross their land, and that seemed like a pretty great metaphor for that kind of defiance,” he says. 

Pipeline or not, small farmers have plenty to worry about.

“Right now, everything in ag is geared toward getting bigger,” Genoways says. “The question facing the entire industry is: How big is big enough? What do we lose when we force farmers off the land or make them into businessmen more than stewards of the land? To my eye, you lose agri-CULTURE and are left with agri-BUSINESS.”

Farming as a way of life is endangered.

“Nebraska lost a thousand farms in 2017,” he says. “Those properties will be absorbed by larger operations. The ground will still be farmed. The connection between farmer and farm will be further stretched and strained. That’s the way everything has gone, and it’s how everything is likely to continue. Agribusiness interests argue these trends move us toward maximum yield with improved sustainability. But it also means decisions are made by fewer and fewer people. Mistakes and misjudgments are magnified. So we not only lose the culture of independence and responsibility that built rural communities, but grow more dependent on a version of America run by corporations.”

Chronicling the Hammonds left indelible takeaways—one being the varied skills farming requires. 

“We saw them harvest a field of soybeans while keeping an eye on the futures trading and calling around to elevators to check on prices; they were making market decisions as sophisticated as any commodities trader,” Genoways says. “This is one of the major pressures on family farms. To survive, you have to be able to repair your own center pivot or broken tractor, but also be a savvy business owner—adapting early to technological changes and diversifying to insulate your operation.”

The Hammonds weathered the storm.

“They are doing well. They got good news when the Public Service Commission only approved the alternate route for KXL,” he says.

Meanwhile, Genoways sees an American food system in need of reform.

“We would benefit mightily from a national food policy,” he says. “How can you explain subsidizing production of junk food and simultaneously spending on obesity education? How do we justify unsustainable volumes of meat while counseling people to eat less meat? If we really want people to improve their eating habits, we should provide economic incentives in that direction.”


Visit tedgenoways.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Shanketta Newsom’s National Poetry Slam Debut

December 9, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Shanketta Newsom describes the National Poetry Slam, she speaks of intense bouts in front of a panel of judges and a lively crowd.

In my mind, her passionate description conveys a scene akin to a gritty rap-battle competition, set in some abandoned building full of poets with stained sweaters reeking of their mom’s spaghetti (a la Eminem).

“It is nothing like that at all,” Newsom replies after hearing my absurd description. “The entire experience was beautiful, and the atmosphere was positive…I’d have to say that the poetry slam was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a long time!”

There goes my 8 Mile analogy.

Newsom is relatively new to the local spoken-word scene, a transplant with hometown roots in Sardis, Mississippi. Recruited by Union Pacific Railroad from alma mater Jackson State University in 2011, she eventually relocated to Omaha from Portland, Oregon, in 2014 to continue her career in marketing and sales.

She found herself drawn to local poetry showcases such as Verbal Gumbo at the Omaha Rockets Kanteen. Eventually, a friend’s encouragement coerced her to take the stage. She was hesitant at first, but the receptive audience inspired the performer within her.

As former captain of the Prancing J-Settes at Jackson State (the dance team that inspired Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” choreography), Newsom knows how to work a crowd.

“It was an awesome feeling and kind of therapeutic,” Newsom says, reminiscing on her first public foray into spoken-word poetry. “The local community is full of support, and I fell in love with the whole scene. I found myself coming back every month!”

Zedeka Poindexter is an established poet who holds the honor of being the first woman crowned Omaha “city champion” at the National Poetry Slam. As a slam master and organizer, she insists that Newsom’s voice is greatly needed for Omaha’s slam poetry team.

“Shanketta did incredibly well from the very beginning,” Poindexter says. “She was both a consistent performer and placed highly, so there was no question that she would make the team in April.”

After securing her spot on the national team, Newsom set about preparing for the competition, practicing daily in front of a mirror and a glass of fine wine.

She decided to use her most popular poems for the slam—a personal composition titled “This is Why” and a poem about life’s trials and tribulations titled “The Cycle.”

Sozos Coffee Shop in the Old Market would serve as her team’s preferred meeting place, where they could rent out space and let their creativity flow in the agreeable atmosphere.

The National Poetry Slam took place over the course of five days in early August, a beautiful time to be in Denver, Colorado. In addition to many poetry-inspired activities and workshops, each night’s competition took place at different venues throughout the city, providing participants a chance to soak up the city’s culture.

“It didn’t feel like a competition,” Newsom explains. “It was like performing in front of family, with everyone snapping and clapping. Even our competition showed us support.”

Newsom’s team would score a respectable second and fourth place in their preliminary bouts. Ultimately, they did not qualify for the semi-finals.

“We got a great crowd reaction,” she says. “There were a lot of good teams. It made me look at myself and realize that I’m good, but there is lots of room for improvement.”

With this year’s National Poetry Slam in the books, Newsom is excited to get ready for next year’s competition.

In the meantime, she auditioned for American Idol when the show stopped through Omaha in August. “Auditioning was a childhood dream, and I will definitely try out again,” Newsom says.

Positive response from judges inspired her participation in the #BodakYellowChallenge online. Her freestyle rap video for the challenge went viral, with more than 270,000 views and counting.

Between now and the next National Poetry Slam, she plans to continue performing at local spoken word showcases, running her “I Heartbeat Dance, LLC” majorette camp (that she started in January 2017), and working with the Nebraska Writers Collective to provide after-school creative writing programs for high school students.

Visit newriters.org for more information about the Nebraska Writers Collective. Learn more about local spoken-word poetry events by following @VerbalGumbo on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

Watch Shanketta Newsom recite two poems for Omaha Magazine here:

The Masons

August 3, 2015 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

This article appears in August 2015 Her Family.

It seems like the stereotypically idyllic life of a poet: a gravel path leading to a house in the woods, one that calls to mind Walden Pond and literary greats such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Poet Matt Mason and his wife, poet Sarah McKinstry-Brown, share that home with daughters Sophia Mason, 11, Lucia Mason, 7, and rescue dog Max. Their lives are as busy and hectic as those of any other working parents—even if they do revolve around words and the constant effort to construct them into something profound and beautiful.

“Being two poets seems like this really romantic existence,” explains McKinstry-Brown, “but it’s a lot of hard work and love, sweat, tears, and making time for the kids. Sometimes I wish people would have more of an understanding of how hard it is.”

The couple’s professional achievements speak to exactly how hard, especially in terms of how hard each poet works. Mason, 46, is executive director of the Nebraska Writers Collective. He won a Pushcart Prize and served as a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department to Botswana, Nepal, and Belarus. McKinstry-Brown, 38, leads literary workshops and garnered the Academy of American Poets Prize as well as a Blue Light Book Award for her full-length collection of poetry, Cradling Monsoons. Each has received Nebraska Books Awards, and they are influential members of Omaha’s flourishing poetry slam scene, a scene that Mason was instrumental in creating.

The poets met in 2002, when McKinstry-Brown appeared at a poetry slam in Omaha. “I announced on stage that it was my birthday, and Matt ordered me a piece of cheesecake,” the mother of two remembers. “It was carrot cake,” Mason interjects. “No, it was cheesecake,” responds McKinstry-Brown. “Carrot cake,” insists Mason.

While poetry drew Mason and McKinstry-Brown together, Sophia and Lucia, who both attend St. Philip Neri Catholic School, remain nonplussed about what their father and mother do for a living. When asked what they think about their parents’ jobs, they shrug their shoulders.

“It’s funny,” remarks McKinstry-Brown. “It makes you realize how much your idea of normal is and how it’s shaped. Sophia’s asked a few times if everyone has a photograph on the back of a book. They’ve grown up going to a lot of readings. It’s their normal, and they’re very blasé about it.”

Indeed, rather than talk about their parents, the sisters are focused on Max’s affectionate antics and the next door neighbor’s puppy, which is staring plaintively into the living room window hoping to gain entry. “Don’t let the puppy in—we’ll never get rid of him!” exclaims McKinstry-Brown. The girls exchange mischievous glances as if trying to figure out how to get around this order without getting into trouble.

Each girl has a personality that mirrors one parent. Sophia, who sports a pixie cut and wears a t-shirt and shorts, is serious and introspective like her father. A Minecraft enthusiast, she loves the different worlds she can build. “There are so many things in it,” Sophia explains. “You can build absolutely anything. You can build a castle. I’ve gone really far.”

Lucia, despite being laid low with a cough, is outgoing like her mother and sprawls comfortably across the floor in a white sparkly dress. She loves to cook and is competitive with her sister in developing recipes. “Sophia likes gross stuff,” she observes with an impish grin before rattling off some of the ingredients for one of her sandwiches. “It had bread, yogurt, and chocolate sauce,” she recounts.

Even so, what Mason and McKinstry-Brown do for a living has influenced their daughters. At a young age, the sisters set up poetry slams, performing to audiences of stuffed animals seated around the living room couch. Sophia is interested in writing a children’s book with her mother titled Max at the Window, which would imagine the family pet’s fanciful daydreams while the the girls are at school. “I was thinking that for ‘about the author’ we should put something about Max and put glasses on him for his photo,” she suggests.

While the girls may not always be aware of the challenges facing full-time poets, Mason is keenly so, indicating they’ve just returned from Disneyland. “It was our first real family vacation,” he says. “You look at how everyone lives very different lives from us, and there is a certain attraction to that.”

“Like everyone else, it’s figuring out what’s sustainable,” McKinstry-Brown adds. “It’s more challenging because of the path we’ve chosen. The girls have given us so much of our art and how we see the world. They have given us so much insight. I’m really, really proud of us.”

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Marilyn Coffey

May 4, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Article originally published in The Encounter May/June 2015 edition.

Somewhere along the continuum of every poem and scrap of prose that ever was and ever will be, Marilyn Coffey’s canon hovers quietly like a fleck of dust swept from the spine of a leather-bound classic.

She was never in it for the fame anyway.

“It’s going to be a very tiny part,” Coffey, 77, says of her contribution to the whole of literary history while holding her thumb and index finger an atom’s width apart, “even if it’s a huge part to me at the end of my life.”

But for those loyal readers of the national prize-winning and internationally published author known for her brazenness and ability to reconcile casual, everyday language with contextually strange words, Coffey will be remembered as a revolutionary. She’ll be remembered as a second-wave feminist who fought for sexual freedom, one lover at a time.

“Any woman who loves/one man and only one man/is mad (or sane),” wrote Coffey in her 1960s poem, “Credo”. “I see it this way: why love one when you can love two/or three or more.”

Coffey was probably damned to put up a fight from the beginning, she says. It’s easy to see why. The author says she was raised in the middle; the middle of nowhere in the middle of the United States in the middle of last century, with an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder and a lot of sexual feelings that she didn’t know what to do with.

“I masturbated a lot and then I found out I wasn’t supposed to,” Coffey admits while laughing off a slight embarrassment for her puritan generation. “I got involved with this Christian youth leader…and that didn’t go well. I actually did try to kill myself at that point in time.”

After religion failed to exorcise her lust, she says, Coffey denounced her faith and eventually left the comforts of her home state. She found inspiration in a brand new novel called On the Road by a then relatively unknown Jack Kerouac.

“And then I left and I went on the road,” she says, pausing as if she still doesn’t believe it to this day. “I went on the road…I went on the road and it was definitely an experience, not like his [Kerouac’s], but it was like mine—it was an experience I wouldn’t have had otherwise if I hadn’t read On the Road.”

Her trip lasted about a year before she landed in New York for roughly the next 30 years. It was in Greenwich Village where Coffey started her discourse on female masturbation through her adolescent heroine, Marcella, and where she won the Pushcart Prize for “Pricksong,” a poem described by the Los Angeles Times as “a wry poem about an obscene houseplant.”

“I was so delighted that it was that poem that was recognized,” Coffey says, weighing the award’s fatalistic importance, “because had it been one of my more conventional poems, I would’ve felt the push to behave like you’re supposed to.”

MarilynCoffey

Zedeka Poindexter

February 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Zedeka Poindexter has had a good year.

In the spring, the Omaha-born performance poet was named slam master of the Om Center Poetry Slam, a monthly event where Omaha’s nationally recognized slam teams come together. She was named a 2014 fall fellow at the Union for Contemporary Art. In January, she—alongside Nebraska State Poet Twyla M. Hansen—will present in a new interactive poetry reading series at KANEKO called Feedback. A week and a half after that, she’ll read at a Backwaters Press-sponsored reading at the Community Engagement Center. She was nominated for the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award’s Best Slam Poet title for 2014 and again for 2015.

“It’s really strange,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting it. It’s like all the things I thought I possibly might want are all happening.

“Matt told me I should probably start investing in lottery tickets, because this is a pretty good run.”

That Matt is Matt Mason, the longtime master of the Om slam who handed the reins to Poindexter in May. A longtime fixture of the slam scene—and a three-time member of the Omaha Slam Team, the rotating members of which compete at the National Poetry Slam—she was well-positioned to take the role. Now that she’s in it, she’s been hosting regular “slam family meetings” and trying to connect the city’s slam poetry, spoken word, and other creative communities.

“It hasn’t been without its challenges,” Poindexter said. “While slam has a very specific following, I wouldn’t say it’s as wide-reaching as I would like it to be. A lot of it is just a matter of making sure we’re talking to each other. Spoken word is so diverse, and slam is just one specific outlet. There’s so much out there—it’s a matter of us all appreciating things we do well and opening our arms wide.”

To that end, Poindexter has her eye on bringing one of slam’s most prominent national competitions, the Women of the World Poetry Slam, to Omaha in 2016. Started in 2008, WOWPS is a three-day event designed to foster women’s involvement in the global slam poetry scene.

“We could have the top 80 women in performance poetry from this country and other countries here,” Poindexter said. “I think we’re well-placed for that.”

She’s also at work on an exhibition piece she’ll show with the other Union for Contemporary Art fall fellows at the completion of their fellowship. She’s been working with the ideas of food and family, building a table with place settings and love letters for people living and dead she’d like to have at her table.

It makes sense for this poet locally known for a piece about her family’s recipe for peach cobbler, for a writer who’s filled a notebook with the Southern idioms her mother and grandmother would use, for a woman who wants to help people tell stories while she tells her own, too.

“There’s this idea that you can go into someone’s mind,” she said. “Slam is the perfect vehicle for that: You can see it in [poets’] faces and their reactions, and they can see it in your face and your reactions. No matter how tired or frustrated or fed up I get with art in general, I don’t think I could ever truly walk away. There are so many stories out there to hear that keep me coming back. I’m certain there’s something I haven’t heard yet. And then I think if I listen hard enough, I’ll be able to write it myself.

“With the way things have been going, maybe I’ll be the first to write something I’ve been waiting to hear. I hope. I hope.”

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Artists for Inclusion

February 24, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Iggy Sumnik is a noted artist. Bryan Allison is a young man with intellectual disabilities. Their worlds may seem galaxies apart, but the two have more in common than one might suspect. Both share a love of art, and both would appear to live by the same simple philosophy.

“I like to approach each new day as if I were going for a walk,” says Sumnik, a ceramic artist who worked for three years as a studio assistant under the internationally acclaimed Jun Kaneko. “I sense that Bryan and I might be a little alike in that regard. We keep our eyes and ears open during our walk through the day, and maybe we stumble onto something that is a little bit different. Maybe we even learn something new. I expect to learn something from Bryan today. I hope he feels the same way.”

Sumnik was introduced to Allison through a collaboration between local nonprofit organizations WhyArts and VODEC. WhyArts works to ensure that visual and performing arts experiences are open to people of all ages and abilities throughout the metro area. VODEC (see the related story on page 117) provides vocational, residential, and day services for persons with intellectual disabilities in Nebraska and Iowa.

Sumnik unpacks the tools of his profession—a massive block of malleable “potential” and a jumble of clay-working implements—as he explains to Allison and nine of his VODEC friends what would unfold over the next hour or so.

20131213_bs_8014“I didn’t come in with any particular project in mind for you,” he explains. “I’m just here to be an extra set of hands, so I want to see your creativity today—your ideas, not mine.”“Our ideas,” the perpetually smiling Allison replies. “I’m going to make an island. Hawaii. I’m going to be an artist!”

From senior centers and middle schools to the Completely KIDS campus and vocational facilities like VODEC, WhyArts offers a broad slate of programs backed by a small army of talented artists from the arenas of the visual arts, theater, dance, music, poetry, storytelling, and beyond.

The roster of WhyArts artists reads something like a Who’s Who of the creative community. Jill Anderson is the popular chanteuse, recording artist, and Actors’ Equity performer. Roxanne Nielsen makes magic as a frequent choreographer of Omaha Community Playhouse productions. Ballet legend Robin Welch was featured in the last issue of Omaha Magazine. Add spoken word impresario Felicia Webster and Circle Theater co-founder Doug Marr, to name but a few, and it’s a line-up that represents the very best—and most caring—of a city’s imagination pool. “These are more than just talented professionals with long resumes who happen to do workshops,” says WhyArts director Carolyn Anderson. “They are advocates of the arts, but they are also passionate advocates for inclusion.”

Originally known as Very Special Arts Nebraska when the group formed in 1990, the WhyArts model is one that recognizes the simplest of ideas—that creative expression is a foundational attribute of the human condition.

“The underserved populations we reach generally do not have access to the arts,” Anderson continues, “but creativity is innate in us all, regardless of age or ability. What we do is to help people discover that creativity. We don’t try to ‘teach’ art. We experience it right along with them—and on their terms, just like you see Iggy doing here today. Everything we do is carefully tailored to the needs and abilities of the people we serve, but we do it in a way that respects the individual and encourages the artistic expression that is waiting to be released in each and every one of us.”

It’s a formula that also works well for organizations like VODEC.

“The WhyArts mission of inclusion mirrors our own in a perfect way,” says Daryn Richardson, VODEC’s services development   director. “Both of our organizations build bridges to the community with as many organizations and with as many people as we can. That’s the goal of every program we develop.”

Making art in a group, Sumnik adds, is a two-way street. “I try to be nothing more than an enabler for their imaginations,” he says, “but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found inspiration for my own work through people like Bryan.”

Sumnik’s artists have now completed a menagerie of clay creations that will be fired by WhyArts before being returned to their makers. Allison’s fanciful island paradise features a larger-than-life giraffe towering over a lava-spewing volcano.

“We’re getting ready to photograph my art for a magazine!” says Allison, now the center of attention throughout VODEC’s humming-with-activity work floor. “I’m going to be an artist!”

“Going to be?” Sumnik replies. “You’re already there, my man. You’re already there.”

 

Lydia Kang is in Control.

December 16, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lydia Kang has delicate, tiny hands. A long ponytail. She wears simple jewelry: a couple bracelets and some earrings.

That’s nearly as much detail as you’ll get about the characters she writes. Kang’s debut novel, Control, will be released the day after Christmas. “I would say I write for the impatient reader,” she says with a laugh. “I won’t spend three pages discussing why a certain scene is meaningful. I’ll try to get to the core of what is important and emotional and move onto that.”

A young-adult novel with a sci-fi twist, Control follows a young woman named Zelia as she overcomes her father’s death, her sister’s kidnapping, and her own introduction to a society of misfit teens that the government wants the world to forget.

While Zelia is kind of a blank slate, Kang does allow a couple extra descriptors for some of Control’s more unique characters. “Hex is Asian,” she says, describing a young man with four arms, “and Vera is Latina, although you can’t really tell because she’s green.” Oh, and Wilbert has two heads. He switches his sentience between them so he never has to sleep.

This is the kind of medical-thriller world readers get when it’s provided by a sci-fi fan who also happens to be a doctor. Kang, a New York City transplant, has worked at University of Nebraska Medical Center for the past seven years as a general internal medicine physician. She minored in English and has been published in a few medical journals, but, she says, “I have to credit Omaha—this is where I really started writing.” 

Shortly after moving to Omaha with husband Yungpo Bernard Su and giving birth to her youngest of three children, Kang took a stab at writing some poetry. “And it was really horrible poetry, really bad stuff,” she says, “but I thought, you know, this is kind of fun.”

After a few writing seminars and a couple of what she calls “practice novels,” Kang was ready in 2010 to put her latest idea to the test—a story centered around a young woman living with Ondine’s curse, an ailment that can cause respiratory arrest during sleep. “I was studying for my boards recertification,” she recalls, “and I couldn’t remember hearing about it in medical school. And I thought it was really fascinating and horrific and sad. And wouldn’t it be interesting to have a character with that?” She wrote her first draft in three months, she signed on with an agent in 2011, and a couple weeks later Control was picked up by Penguin.

To make herself more attractive to the publishing world, Kang also began blogging in 2010. But what to blog about other than the challenges of writing? “There are a million blogs out there like that,” she recalls thinking. “Do I have anything else to offer? And I sat there wondering, what makes me different, what do I have to offer, do I have any skills that I can share with people? And then—oh. I’m a doctor.” She laughs now at how completely she had separated her life in medicine from her writing life.

Kang spread the word online that if a writer were struggling with a fictional medical scenario, she’d assist them with authoritative advice. For example, an author might need a character to wake up after, say, a half hour; Kang could suggest a drug that might work in such a situation. She’s advised on medical situations that have been published in other books, and one author even gave her a cameo appearance in a book as Dr. Kang.

For the foreseeable future, she’ll remain Dr. Kang in both literary and real life. Though she plans to release Control’s sequel, Catalyst, in early 2015 and is currently revising a fantasy novel for her agent’s consideration, Kang says it would take a lot to make her give up practicing medicine to write full-time. “I really love my patients. It’s a bit hectic at times,” she admits, laughing, “but I’m managing.”

 A book release party for Control will be held Jan. 18 from 2-4 p.m. at The Bookworm in Countryside Village, 8701 Pacific St.

Verbal Gumbo

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Felicia Webster’s voice produces chills up the spine. “And then he kiiiiissssssed me, and I melted. Like buttah.”

Her friend, Michelle Troxclair, nods and waves a hand. “Mhm, girl, we know what that’s like.”

This is spoken-word entertainment. It’s theatrical, it’s heartfelt, it’s ethereal, and it happens every third Thursday of the month at House of Loom on 10th and Pacific streets. This is not your safe-bet night out. The words you’ll hear could be dark, could be sexy, could be hilarious. It could be anything really, which is why Webster and Troxclair, the open-mic evening’s organizers, call this night Verbal Gumbo.

Troxclair arranges the club’s random chaise lounges, velvet chairs, and embroidered hassocks on the dance floor. Webster picks out the candles and incense. If guests outnumber the usual crowd of around 70, there might be a few people standing. A $5 cover charge gets you a simple meal, like Troxclair’s white chicken chili or her brother’s highly requested mac-and-cheese.

The evening begins around 7 p.m., giving guests enough time to sign up to speak if they wish, get their bowl, and settle into a seat. Troxclair is strict about minimizing distraction during the spoken word sets that begin about 8-ish. Of course, feel free to get up from your seat to wait for the massage therapist set up in the corner or the body painter off to the side as someone else speaks at the mic.

“For those who haven’t come here before,” Webster explains, “they’ll find out that it doesn’t matter what order you sign up in.”20130321_bs_8812

Troxclair laughs and says, “It’s whoever I’m feeling like hearing at the time.” The two women make sure speakers alternate male and female, but other than that, there are few rules. People offer poetry about anything from relationships to violence to the triumph of breaking cycles. “Sometimes it’s comedic,” Troxclair says, “but there’s always a message.”

The only requirement is that “you respect the mic,” as Webster puts it. Verbal Gumbo creates a flow between audience and speaker, almost a conversation. The speaker shares his work, and the audience participates in the performance by responding verbally when something resonates.

“Say yes, say amen, say all right, honey!” Troxclair suggests. “You’re validating what they’re saying.”

About 15 people speak per night for about three to five minutes apiece. If time’s not running tight, each person should feel free to offer two pieces. A short intermission makes room for a few public service announcements and to refill a drink.

Felicia Webster

Felicia Webster

If the easily stage-frightened start to come out of their shells as the evening progresses, all bets are not off. Walk back to the sign-up sheet, add your name, and you’ll probably be called on. Deliver your offering with confidence that whatever you bring will be accepted. “This is not The Apollo,” Webster says. “You don’t get the hook.”

Let’s be clear. Verbal Gumbo is not another poetry slam. A poetry slam is an entertaining competition. “Spoken word incorporates storytelling,” Troxclair says, separating spoken word from slam. “It can be prose or poetry.” Historically, it’s an artistic—and sometimes secret—way to spread information. It’s an oral tradition shared by Africans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and many other cultures.

“You are disseminating information to get people to think, to move, to change, to progress, to become empowered,” Webster says. That recipe ensures that Verbal Gumbo, like its culinary counterpart, is savory, spicy, and never the same twice.

Sample the next Verbal Gumbo on Thursday, May 16, or Thursday, June 20.