When Ebony Stewart wrote her first poem, she had barely spoken a word for almost a year. She was 8 years old, and her parents were going through a messy divorce. “I went to a psychiatrist and she handed me this composition journal and was like, 'Write whatever you want to say.'” The words gave her a voice, and she hasn’t stopped speaking – or writing – since.
So you could say a lot has gone into the award-winning slam poet’s debut book, Love Letters to Balled Fists (Timber Mouse, $15). The book release party, which Timber Mouse founder Kevin Burke calls "an extravaganza," will take place at 7:30pm this Thursday at the Spiderhouse Ballroom. Stewart, who started racking up awards in the Austin slam poetry scene shortly after graduating from Texas State University in 2007 and was named Best Slam Poet at the 2011 National Poetry Awards, will perform poems from the book, accompanied by live music and capoeira, a hybrid of Afro-Brazilian martial arts and dance. Slam poets Amir Safi, Jomar Valentin, and Lacey Roop, whose book And Then Came the Flood was Timber Mouse’s first release in January 2012, will be the opening acts.
Dubbed “Gully Princess” by fellow slam poets shortly after she started performing in 2007, Stewart says she has been a performer “almost as long as I’ve been a girl and been black.” She has described her own style as "beasty"; onstage, her commanding, magnetic stage presence belies her willowy frame. “I love to feel like a giant on stage," she says. "When I go to my mic check, I always tell the sound crew, 'Hey y'all, I like to sound like a giant.'" According to Burke, it works: “She can get up there and say something very calmly and quietly, but it is just as loud and hits you just as hard as somebody yelling something into a megaphone, into the biggest amplifier ever."
When asked why the name Gully Princess suits her, she thinks for a moment. “Well, I’m not a girly-girl, but I got some girly ways. Like, I think pink is an amazing color. Fuchsia is brilliant. But I’m also very red – like sit down, get out of my face.” She laughs. “I care about my hair. And then I have this really rugged, raggedy side, like, I don’t give a shit what I got on.”
This is the side of her that got her in trouble from time to time as a young woman growing up in the city of Baytown near Houston, where most of her family still lives. In the poem “Tomboy,” she recalls a neighborhood woman saying, “She got mo’ pants than she got dresses, gone forget she a girl.” In the poem, Stewart rebuts: “Wearin’ pants don’t make you a boy. / And they don’t hear you right when you got on a dress.”
Stewart almost always writes from her own life, crafting her words to resonate with audiences who may or may not have shared her background and experiences. Relationships are an ongoing theme in her work, whether she’s describing the tenderness of being freshly in love in the poem "Hands in Pockets" (“I’d like to be the bristled brush you use to lay down your waves”) or the complicated struggle of a woman to own her sexuality amid “the bonesface of misery and bending knees and yanked hair" in “A Human Being Lives Here."
Other poems explore complicated intersections of race and gender, as in the poem "Village," where she rails against a culture that romanticizes the entanglement of sex and violence: “Where was your village / when they gapped her wide, / left auto-tune residue on her thighs, / called her bitch, and poked her face?” In “Domestic,” she sends quietly damning messages to the community who unwittingly sustained her physical abuse by a boyfriend: “For the boy on the basketball court who started a fight with my ex-boyfriend and told him he hits like a girl, / to prove you wrong he now hits girls, too.”
The “balled fists” of the title appear in several poems, and Stewart vehemently defends her own anger: “Poets who think I don’t know how to be vulnerable, that want me to unball my fists, / I am protecting myself. / You should’ve seen what happened when I didn’t.” But above all, Stewart describes her spoken-word poetry as a fierce romance with life itself: “I gotta French kiss fear with this mouth.” This vulnerability renders her poems poignant even when they are vibrating with rage.
Determining the shape of the poem on the page – where to break lines, for example – can be new territory for a slam poet, even a practiced wordsmith like Stewart, who double-majored in English and communications. Accustomed to writing for her eyes only and letting the words come to life at the microphone, Stewart drew confidence from the fact that her editors at Timber Mouse were both friends and fellow performance poets. "I respect them and trust them enough to be like, 'OK, that's cool. If you think that's what it needs, let's do that.'"
As a publisher of spoken-word poetry, Burke faces this type of challenge with every project. Burke, himself an award-winning slam poet, has relied on advice from Write Bloody founder Derrick Brown, who, together with Burke, is making Austin a hotspot for publishers of spoken-word poetry. For instance, Brown advised him to start the book with something that is a page or less, since most people only read the first page when deciding what to buy. Thus the book opens with a new, short piece called "Mosaic Women" that Burke describes as one of his favorites, even though he's never heard it performed.
Somehow, it seems fitting for Stewart’s print debut to begin with a poem that has never been performed aloud. Despite all of Stewart’s stage experience, the words, not the performance, come first: “I slam because I'm good at it. I write poetry because I have to.”
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