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: