Charli Randolph used to loathe speaking in public. Her mouth would get dry and she would shake uncontrollably. But when she saw Sacrificial Poets perform, she found in them a sense of honesty, a desire to elicit emotion and the need to challenge social norms. Her coaches, Sacrificial Poets, helped knock down the mental wall she had erected, she says.
Randolph, who recently graduated from Chapel Hill High School, has been competing in national poetry contests for three years, but last month at a packed open mic event at Flyleaf Books, she felt scared. The piece she performed took two years to write, and it took her longer to come to terms with the theme: a falling out with a friend who struggles with an eating disorder.
"I told you, you were beautiful, but you never listened, Christina, you never heard the sound your heart pounded out," Randolph said, her voice wavering.
Christina, who had never seen Randolph perform or heard the poem, was sitting in the third row. Randolph's eyes locked with hers, and Randolph began to cry.
"Go in, poet," the crowd shouted back in support.
"You were the only angel this world had left, but you tore off your wings so you could weigh a little less," Randolph continued. "You don't know what perfection looks like because you never saw yourself dance."
A song by Lionel Richie played as Randolph walked offstage. Red-faced, she clutched Christina, still a friend, but not in the same way as before.
"Just in case y'all are confused, this is what this space is for," Sacrificial Poets/ YouTH ink Executive Director CJ Suitt said. "Definitely a place of transformation, a place of reconnection, a place of growth, a place of openness. In case you are confused about what just happened, this is a place for that."
"That was the first time I'd ever felt a tear run down my face while performing," Randolph said later. "That was what that poem needed to be. It was worth it for having that moment when she realizes how much I care."
Randolph and Suitt are traveling this week to San Francisco to compete in Brave New Voices, the national youth poetry competition that Suitt says changed his life.
"I was raised in a type of environment where kids are seen and not heard and you are not supposed to be very vocal, except in ways they are told to be vocal," Suitt says. "To see that many young people being vocal and being powerful about their lives and telling stories to an entire audience of youth supporting them, it opened my eyes to what is possible in this world."
"As if black men were pit bulls without leashes, the plight of a black man in a white town where he's only good if he's affluent or submissive, speaks proper English and his clothes fit proper black man working a job with a dress code no tattoos well groomed Is a student and/or has a degree of some sort in this lovely little college town where Armchair progressives are a dime a dozen and social consciousness is a verbal state of mind it really only lies in revolutionary cotton tees, dreads and blowing trees ..." —CJ Suitt
Suitt was a founding member of the Chapel Hill Slam Team in 2005. Chapel Hill High School teacher Michael Irwin was the team's sponsor. He calls the Sacrificial Poets "not only some of my best students but some of my greatest friends in the world. They are wildly individualistic but also like a free-form amoeba at the same time."
"A lot of their educational experiences are grounded in transforming awareness into action, and they want to do something with it, they want poetry to be a tool for education and activism and political movement and community transformation," Irwin says.
In 2007, when Irwin could no longer oversee the team, Suitt stepped in, shifting from student to leader. "I look to CJ as kind of the real catalyst and the spark who decided that he wasn't going to let it down at that critical moment when they really needed a youth leader to step up," Irwin says.
Suitt had left UNC-Pembroke after one year. "I'm not supposed to be doing what I'm doing," Suitt says. "I'm supposed to be working at somebody's drive-thru window smelling like fried grease."
Suitt is joined by spoken-word artists Kane Smego, Will McInerney, George "G" Yamazawa and Jake Jacoby, who serve as artistic director, associate director, youth outreach coordinator and director of video and media operations, respectively. They compose the core of Sacrificial Poets, the first, and until this year, the only, youth spoken-word team in North Carolina.
"It's a movement dedicated to fostering young voices in the area to become free thought, open-minded, courageous individuals that will help lead the next generation," Yamazawa says.
"What can one possibly say about life to a person who has already seen the smirk on death's face, her arthritis comes from his firm handshake her knuckles are too weak to open a jar but still strong enough to carry her sanity in her jar." —George "G" Yamazawa, "Dear Grandma"
It started as just five guys, sometimes just performing among themselves. "Steel sharpens steel," Yamazawa says. "We grind off of each other."
Audiences at poetry slams and open mics grew from a dozen at Market Street Books in Southern Village to standing room only, at venues like Flyleaf Books.
Sacrificial Poets are known on the national spoken-word scene. Four of the five compete with the Bull City Slam Team. Smego, who placed 14th in the Individual World Poetry Slam, is traveling with McInerney, who placed third in the nation. Both are writing oral histories and performing spoken word in Egypt and Tunisia this summer. N.C. State student photographer Sameer Abdel-Khalek and translator and spoken-word artist Mohammad Moussa will join them. They envision the project, Poetic Portraits of a Revolution, as a book. Audio diaries from the journey air each week on NPR.
At home and abroad, Sacrificial Poets promote social issues including literacy, gender equality, acceptance and understanding, affordable housing, unions and collective bargaining. This year they have helped lobby at the General Assembly, performing at the HK on J rally and before Chapel Hill Town Council.
"Kids that are young, they still have a view on society and what they feel is correct and what they want their world to be," Jacoby says. "I believe that you've got to start at a younger age in order to shape it into the world you want it to be when you get older."
Sacrificial Poets teach at least three monthly workshops, hold regular Sunday meetings and host high school slams, in addition to the open mics. The best teenagers, identified through monthly graded performances and a Grand Slam final, travel to Brave New Voices and compete.
Alec Lowman is this year's Grand Slam champion. The rising senior at Jordan High School performs pieces on subjects such as bullying, homophobia and alcoholism. He credits Sacrificial Poets with empowering students to "speak with their own voices," creating a supportive, honest environment where deep, personal issues are explored and bonds formed.
"The emphasis is on growth, no matter who you are and what you are doing; it's never about ego," Lowman says.
Still, it's a competition that challenges students to excel. But, Lowman says, "there's the idea that everyone is always improving and the idea if you come to a slam and spit that's awesome and we want to help you keep writing."
Lowman says he is constantly amazed and inspired by the leaders of Sacrificial Poets. "They are always showing themselves to be great mentors and great teachers even as they are going through their own things. They are the type of people you can always go and talk to and show a piece of writing and get feedback," he says. "I've learned a lot from them in terms of leadership and in terms of thinking about the world and what voice I can have."
How brave do you have to be to dare someone to kill you before you let them touch your brother, these actions speak louder than any poem I will ever write, I should stop asking how brave the Egyptians are because they have proven themselves time and again, America how brave are you? —Will McInerney, "A Letter to the People of Egypt"
In high school classrooms, Sacrificial Poets often ignite shy students' confidence. "It's kind of like that thin layer of ice just shatters and they just start swimming in whatever is possible," says Irwin, who teaches spoken word to his classes and invites Sacrificial Poets to help.
Colette Heiser was struggling in Irwin's class, particularly with reading comprehension, until she attended a Sacrificial Poets event for extra credit. Months later she performed a gripping poem in the school auditorium that explored her struggle with attention hyperactive deficit disorder. "I'm tired of being medicated for being myself," she revealed.
Since then, Heiser, who starts college at UNC-Asheville this fall, has published a book of poetry. This summer will mark her third time competing at Brave New Voices.
She says she appreciates how the poets have helped her. "I've worked with different businesses and causes in the community, but what sticks out about the Sacrificial Poets is they didn't want my money, they just wanted to help me and see me grow and to help youth have an art form that's an outlet to promote change," she says. "They are incredibly humble too. They see it as much bigger than themselves. I'm a better person because I've met them."