Tag Archives: slam poetry

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:

Gina Keplinger

December 2, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In high school, Gina Keplinger urged her teachers to embrace her slam poetry ambitions. So, the confident teen resorted to a more direct insinuation—she bought them a ticket to one of
her performances.

“I knew that I could win somebody over if I just got their butt in the seat to hear me perform!” Keplinger says. “And that was all it took.”

It was that performance, Keplinger says, that got her teachers at Duchesne Academy to pay attention to the budding slam poetry scene that she and her classmates cared so much about. “Once they heard it there was a total switch. And it was just ‘Yes! We believed you before, but now—now you’ve got us sold. This is the real deal.’”

Keplinger performed locally and nationally alongside her classmates. She recently participated in the 2014 National Poetry Slam in Oakland, Calif. “People don’t expect a lot from young people. And I think it’s really important, for me, to be representative of an age and a generation and be able to say ‘Hey, here we are having these really interesting thoughts.’ It’s not just me, there are hundreds of us—thousands of us—and take us seriously!”

Young poetry is predictably full of revelations about self-discovery and lists of firsts, but powerful performances about rape, social issues, drugs, and heartbreak are as equally abundant. “I think it’s really important to foster youth poetry and kind of eradicate that ‘Oh, you’re young; you’ll understand when you’re older mentality. No, no, no! We understand right now, you know? And if we don’t understand, we’re trying to,” Keplinger says.

In 2013, Keplinger performed her original poem “Hey Mama” for the first time in front of her mother. Gina demonstrated her word-smithing talent and her embodiment of the slam poet swagger. It also was a declaration of love and celebration of the woman who has always pushed her to pursue her passions.

In “Hey Mama,” Keplinger hints at her impending departure to college. “This is…for loving that I’m leaving. I am leaving. I have left. I love you—just because. I am inaccurate meteorology and unpredictable rainstorms, but your eastern-sky smile reminds me to seek the sun, always. Mama. If this heart is a compass you are my due north…”

Now 19, Keplinger is a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She’s studying English with a concentration on poetry writing and women’s and gender studies while also concurrently fulfilling pre-dentistry requirements. She said her work now has more science and math influences. With little free time, she says her writing is much more cathartic now than ever. And of course, her mama keeps her moving.

“It’s amazing how one person’s voice can combat all the negativity that comes at you,” Keplinger says. “She was my one voice that just kept saying, ‘Keep trying. Keep going forward.’ And she still is that voice for me today…which is great.”