Slice of Life

Verbal Blends Poetry expands, looks ahead into 10th year

Codie Yan | Contributing Photography

The "Ayo Technology" event, a collaboration with poetry group in Shanghai, China, is one of the many events hosted by Verbal Blends Poets, a spoken word poetry program, at Syracuse University.

For Cedric Bolton, spoken word poetry is more than lines on a paper written to be performed in front of an audience. It’s a way of life.

“Spoken word poetry saves lives,” he said. “It’s inspiring, it’s engaging and it’s in everything that we do. It’s in the songs that we listen to, in the books that we read, in the quotes that we say.”

Bolton hopes other students at Syracuse University will adopt his way of life. As the program coordinator for SU’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, he leads a spoken word program called Verbal Blend Poets. The group is heading into its 10th year, and consists of poetry workshops — skype events with spoken word poetry groups around the country and world. Their annual Slam Poetry competition will take place Dec. 8.

The idea behind the poetry group didn’t begin at Syracuse, but at the University of Minnesota, in 2001. Bolton was working there as an educational specialist, in addition to leading a black poetry group for members of the community called Poetic Black Fusion. The university asked Bolton if he would be interested in trying something similar on campus, after seeing the popularity of Poetic Black Fusion.

“Minneapolis is this hub of arts, overflowing everywhere, the perfect place for something like this,” he said.

He began meeting with some students he was mentoring, and after being met with positive feedback, began the formation of what is now Voices Merging, the University of Minnesota’s first spoken word group.

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Bolton moved to Syracuse in 2004, but didn’t form Verbal Blend until 2007, when his director approached him and asked him if he would be interested in taking his experience with Voices Merging and trying something similar at SU. Bolton admitted it was a “tough sell” because he was a relatively new staff member.

Verbal Blend Poets is, as the name suggests, a blend of Poetic Black Fusion and Voices Merging, combining six to seven writer’s workshops, slam poetry events and mic nights each semester. The result is a “diverse” program that has something for every type of student, poet or not.

Bolton’s sphere of influence expanded even further by chance, in the summer of 2010, when a former member of Voices Merging tracked him down at a conference. They discussed the growth of Voices Merging since he left, and the creation of Verbal Blend. The student suggested teaming up.

“Being me, funny and joking around, I said, ‘I just found out about this thing ‘Skype,’ maybe we could do ‘Skype open mic,’” Bolton said, laughing, “and she was like, ‘yeah that sounds cool.’”

This collaboration would be combined into one of Verbal Blend’s events, “Ayo Technology,” an open mic event that began in 2009 and encouraged students to perform on their cell phones or laptops. Bolton said he got the idea for the event after seeing the increasing presence of technology replacing notebooks at poetry events.

“I’m still all about these,” he said, pointing at a stack of worn black-and-white composition notebooks on his desk. “But the landscape was changing, and I had to move with the times.”

Ayo Technology really took off in that 2010 collaboration between the University of Minnesota and SU, Bolton said: over 400 total students attended.

Now in its sixth year, the event has moved beyond borders: the group recently performed spoken word poetry over skype with a slam poetry team from a high school in Shanghai. Janel Sullivan, a Syracuse alumna and former member of Verbal Blend, participated in the first Skype session back in 2010 and had since moved to China to teach. She connected her poetry group with Bolton’s.

Though the schools are different, the themes of the poetry from both campuses is the same: social justice, relationships and experiences.

“The slogan was ‘one mic, one voice,’” Bolton said. “They are all in unison with us. It was so incredible to connect through digital mediums and through spoken word.”

Students enjoy the open mic and slam poetry events most, but Bolton said the writer’s workshops, which include discussion and critiques, give them the experience and confidence they need to perform their work.

Verbal Blend Poets provides a platform for students to share their stories in a safe space. That space is something students say keeps them coming back to Verbal Poets’ meetings and events.

“Having a community you can go to, to write what you want, what you are feeling, is important,” said Amina Kurdi, a junior public health major and member of Verbal Blend Poets.

Kurdi, who has been attending the program since freshman year, performed for her first time this past semester. Performing in front of other people can be “scary,” but the group helps her realize “there are other poets who are experiencing the same things.”

Other members of the group agree.

“No one will tell you you’re wrong, no one will judge you. You get up there and speak and people will show you mad love,” agreed member Jo Salvati.

Salvati, a junior psychology and forensic science double major, first caught wind of the group her freshman year, while volunteering at Literacy Corps, a tutoring program for local schools. She attended a training session for how to teach poetry for kids, hosted by Bolton. She said he took note of her talent and encouraged her to come to a Verbal Blend meeting.

The group would quickly become a second family for her, a place to get the stress of the week out. To her, spoken word poetry is a two or three-minute window to present some part of yourself — what people decide to share is important.

“It’s about what people think is important to share, or what they feel they need to share,” she said.

Salvati is planning the Take the Mic Poetry Slam Dec. 8, Verbal Blend’s annual poetry competition, which they have been hosting since 2009. Bolton said the event is a chance for students to showcase their work and progress over the semester.

“It’s a chance to say, ‘Wow, this student has really gone from A to B,’” he said. “When a student gets up there, everyone is always clapping and snapping, because they know what it took for that student to get up there.”

Next spring will mark 10 years of Verbal Blend Poets at Syracuse. Bolton said he is planning a larger activity on top of regular events, to celebrate and showcase everything the program has accomplished, and to set goals for the next 10 years.

“I feel like people have become closer, more dedicated to organizing these events,” said Salvati, reflecting on her time with Verbal Blend. “People are showing up to events, bringing their friends — I’m excited to see where all this good energy will bring.”

As the program continues to grow, Bolton remains committed to making it a space for everyone to feel welcome and to share their experiences, both good and bad.

“For some people, that’s what they love doing — poetry,” he said. “They don’t go to parties, that’s not their thing. They want to be somewhere that’s like a real community. This program works, it feels like a real family. Everyone is a family member to me.”

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