The show stunk of genius, yet, HBO’s 2008 broadcast of high school students from the Brave New Voices stage was old news to Anchorage-based poet, Trey Josey. He researched the poetry competition’s founding organization, YouthSpeaks, in preparation for starting a chapter here in Alaska.
Known as Free Thoughts the Black Verb, Josey became frustrated in his own efforts to find poetic outlets.
It was 2006. Anchorage’s interest in poetry seemed to be on the decline. Josey joined forces with Anchorage Poetry League alumni poets, Corinna Delgado and Kima Hamilton. The three experimented with promotion.
Back then, a poet actually had hope that he or she could make some money performing poetry in Alaska. The first decade of the 21st Century saw the art-form regain popularity, thanks in large part to HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” 100 person audiences crammed into bars like The Alley. Stages — The SpeakEasy and Black Feather Poets — were built.
In the long run, their efforts failed to establish a self-sustaining venue.
Two reasons exist for this. One: promoters could not find, or develop, talent committed long enough to stage consistently dynamic shows. Poetry takes time. It is a craft. Local poets were distracted by raising families and the daily grind of their careers. Energy just wasn’t left over for the level of creativity needed to inspire ear-gasms. Two: despite strenuous marketing, innovative advertising and several venue changes, promoters could not keep, or grow, an audience. Only 20 or 30 people regularly turned out. That’s a very small audience. Unless you are a non-profit hosting an already fully-funded event, anything less than 100 attendants per show was a profit-loss. Shows with audiences numbering in the hundreds — the breaking point — only occurred once a year.
Rather than fight the rough waters of the adult crowd, the East High graduate followed Brave New Voice’s guiding light and decided to cultivate the fertile poetic ground of the Anchorage School District. Josey’s claim to high school fame is being trained by legendary basketball coach, Chuck White. White played on three championship teams, one with grassroots hero and political candidate, Ma’o Tosi.
Anchorage boasts of eight high schools, with thousands of students. After Josey registered with the District, his next challenge lay in convincing students that he was worth listening too. After all, his goal was to present poetry, not rap. Poetry is a well-honored art form that stretches back into the hallowed halls of antiquity. Read: it’s boring, right? Spoken word is not driven by a hypnotic beat. Instead, listeners tune in to the quality-construction of emotionally-charged words.
Fortunately, Josey wasn’t alone in implementing YouthSpeak’s operations model. Others shared the vision. Pushed out of the adult scene, Delgado and Hamilton decided to help out. For three years, their personalities, and the various talents who came and left as interest permitted, graced high school classrooms and auditoriums. It took a little while for teachers and students to warm up to the concept of a local scene, but, as HBO provided free advertising, Josey was successfully laying the building blocks for Brave New Alaskan Voices’s first season.
Approximately 40-50 persons crowded into an Out North exhibition room for that year’s finale. Josey was surprised to learn how serious Valley students took to the microphone. Their creativity and presence dominated the stage.
Four years later, Josey found himself in San Francisco, where the parent organization, YouthSpeaks, began and the first Brave New Voices national competition occurred in 1998. He was surrounded by other chapter organizers at the 2014 convention. Only one topic was under discussion: sustainability.
“It just didn’t make sense,” Josey said. “How was a chapter in Houston, Texas facing the exact same problems as I am facing in Anchorage, Alaska? The market in Houston don’t come close to comparing. Ain’t Houston four times bigger than Anchorage? How are they complaining about money or a how hard it is to pull a crowd.”
Regardless, they do complain about money, which is Josey’s current challenge. Nationals is scheduled for Philadelphia this year, and Atlanta in 2015. Each chapter is tasked with raising its own funds to field a team of 4-6 youth team members and at least two coaches. For Josey, that’s translates to around $10,000.
That challenge resonated with many at the convention.
The parent organization attempted to share some words of comfort. It reminded those assembled that YouthSpeaks went three years without any significant funding beyond the pockets of coaches. Administration was so poor that records don’t exist for the winners of the first seven national slams. It wasn’t until HBO’s notoriety that the parent organization could provide support in the form of an organizer’s convention.
Josey is counting on beating those numbers. And he is open to new ideas. While in San Francisco, he was introduced to the idea of a “poetic play.” He followed through in Anchorage on March 9th. The play was a partnership between six dancers and three poets. Josey designed the production with interchangeable pieces, thinking ahead. Personalities come and go so fast in the world of poetry.
For now, dinner sales, cover charges for slams, and special performances are paying the bills. They are also helping young poets get seen by Anchorage’s more influential denizens.
He’s looking for more help too, which he trusts will come when it is needed.
“I’m focused,” he said. “Quarterfinals are March 24 at Out North. I’m worried about my kids [the poets]. I want them to put on a performance that they can be proud of.”