Roses are red. Violets are blue. American poetry publications have a diversity problem. It’s true in Nebraska, too.
It’s easy to assume that Omaha’s published poets are predominantly white people. After all, the anthology of poetry selected for the 2018 One Book One Nebraska (Nebraska Presence), does not feature a single African-American poet.
But looking only at “published” work can be misleading.
Omaha’s poetry scene is incredibly diverse. Anyone who has attended one of the myriad competitive poetry slams or open mic nights recurring throughout Omaha—featuring local poets from across the spectrum of ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual orientation/identity—already knows this.
Zedeka Poindexter and Michelle Troxclair know all too well about the struggle for representation in Nebraska’s poetry scene.
Poindexter and Troxclair are both leading voices in the local poetry community. These African-American women are dedicated to building an inclusive environment for spoken-word and slam poetry in Omaha.
Troxclair is the board president of Verse Inc. (a nonprofit dedicated to making “poetry exciting and relevant for future generations through innovative projects and unconventional collaboration” with consultative and financial assistance for local poets), and she is the founder of The Wordsmiths (a local spoken-word poetry troupe).
She also organizes an open mic night, Tapestries, with the goal of bridging the racial, cultural, geographic, and age divisions in the local poetry community. Tapestries takes place on the first Sunday of every month at The Omaha Lounge (1505 Farnam St.)
“We all kind of function in these silos,” Troxclair says, commenting on the divisions that she has noticed among local poets and between those working in written vs. spoken mediums of poetry. “And my role in this is to try to open up these silos and cross-pollinate.”
She explains that spoken-word poetry comes out of the African-American oral traditions. Slam poetry incorporates influences of spoken-word poetry along with hip-hop (another artistic form rooted in the African-American experience).
Spoken-word and slam poetry are both performed. But the competitive form of slam poetry is more like a poetry recital combined with a rap battle and judges taking score.
Poindexter has served as an ambassador for Omaha through her involvement with Omaha Poetry Slam. Representing Omaha on the national stage is a point of pride for her.
“We’ve been respected as consistently good writers, which is the thing that I love,” says Poindexter, who was the first female Omaha Slam Champion and twice named Poet of the Year at the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.
Poindexter has traveled across the country to read her poetry and perform in poetry slams (including the National Poetry Slam).
In Omaha, she has worked closely with fellow slam poetry organizers (including Matt Mason, director of the Nebraska Writers Collective and founder of the Great Plains chapter of Louder Than a Bomb) to help support new voices on the scene, such as Olivia Johnson, Shanketta Newsom, and Ryan Boyland.
The regional youth slam poetry chapter now encompasses teams pulling from more than 40 schools. Poindexter is thrilled to see students who were exposed to slam poetry through Louder Than a Bomb and other programs now coming back to work in the Omaha poetry community and compete at the National Poetry Slam.
Troxclair’s work with Verse and other poetry initiatives function in concert with the efforts of Nebraska Writers Collective, providing opportunities for teens and young adults to take their poems to the next level.
“We provide opportunities for poets to do these really innovative projects,” Troxclair says.
Located at 2205 N. 24th St., Verse not only allows local poets, young and old, to perform original poems and develop their writing through Tapestries, it also provides a space for collaborations between poets, spoken-word artists, rappers, and other vocal or musical artists. Previous collaborative partners have included local artists Lite Pole, Edem, Kiara Walker, and Marcey Yates.
The crew at Verse also puts on verse plays (theatrical productions consisting primarily of spoken-word poetry or monologues). Casting for Troxclair’s play From the Ashes is scheduled for Jan. 15-Feb. 15, and Verse accepts submissions twice a year (Dec. 31 and July 31).
Verse is also developing curriculum for the Nebraska Writers Collective to use in work with the Douglas County Youth Correctional facility, and Troxclair is teaching spoken-word poetry at North High School through FLIYE Arts Youth Development.
Poindexter and Troxclair emphasize that supporting local poets—whether through financial donations or through attendance at open mics, competitions, and other events—should be a priority for the Omaha community.
“How will we be remembered,” Troxclair wonders aloud, “if we do not support our poets and our storytellers and our artists?”
Visit newriters.org for more information about the Nebraska Writers Collective.
Visit verseinc.org for more information about Verse and Tapestries.
Visit ltabgreatplains.org for more information about Louder Than a Bomb Great Plains
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.