The politics of poetry, performed

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by Eric Ginsburg

Kayla Lewis has long held artistic tendencies, but her foray into spoken-word poetry began with a jolt.

About 18 months ago, she woke up suddenly with a poem in her head about her brother who she lost years earlier to gun violence. Now, her politically charged guerrilla poetry has become her calling card.

Lewis, who grew up in Fayetteville and moved to Greensboro in 2006, has become a fixture at political rallies and gatherings in the city, standing in front of spellbound audiences who are drawn to her cadence and rhythm as well as her poignant messages. She prefers to deliver her poetry, which at times feels like a rousing sermon, in places where it might be jarring, such as in front of a police station.

But Lewis doesn’t always perform outside the realm of traditional venues, and she certainly hasn’t always been this comfortable speaking in front of crowds. After linking up with PoetShe, a local group that spotlights and supports female performers, Lewis quickly found herself nudged on stage. Now she helps run the organization, coordinating events and scheduling gigs.

Since diving into poetry, Lewis has performed numerous times at local universities. Intent on continuing to push her boundaries and grow, she entered the Southeastern Regional NC Poetry Slam. There, one of her characteristically strong political pieces launched her into the Top 4, giving her the confidence to start making plans for a few big national competitions.

A September show with PoetShe at Triad Stage, called Unleashed, was her biggest yet, as Lewis and her counterparts performed at least five poems each as the headliners. Based off the event’s success and strong, positive reviews, PoetShe started planning a tour to take their skills on the road.

Lewis isn’t just a staple at demonstrations in Greensboro because of her poetry; she is also active as an organizer. When she arrived at UNCG, where she studied psychology and art, Lewis only had a vague political orientation, but she began attending campus PRIDE and socialist meetings.

Later, the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida mobilized her. She started a push, Greensboro for Trayvon Martin, working locally for police accountability as well as highlighting cases like the police-shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Lewis has also given workshops about peoples’ rights when stopped by police and worked for an NAACP voter registration drive in Fayetteville before this year’s election.

Lewis, a student at NC A&T University’s counseling graduate program, hopes to some day run her own art-therapy practice, a sort of center for creative wellness, she said. She sees the importance of art in healing not just in others, but also its redemptive power in her own life. And she’s even working on a nonfiction book about African-American families, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and the stigma surrounding seeking help for mental health issues.

Not all of Lewis’ artistic and creative endeavors are explicitly aimed at making change. She also works with woodless graphite, colored pencils and charcoal to create portraits. People commission her for events like graduation and weddings, and she enjoys depicting things as accurately as possible. One of her pieces, originally on display at African-American Atelier in Greensboro, was recently purchased for an exhibit of African-American art at the Four Seasons Mall.

To Lewis, the different mediums provide distinct outlets and opportunities, and it wouldn’t make sense to try and shoehorn her political work — such as a piece she is working on now about catcalling — into a visual format.

“With something as nuanced and complicated as politics, I think it needs words,” she said.

PoetShe performs every fourth Friday at 7 p.m. at Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro. Visit poetsheperformingarts.org for more info.