2023 Performance Poetry Contest Winners
We'd like to thank everyone who entered our first PERFORMANCE POETRY contest and to give special thanks to our guest judge, Jen Harris!
Congratulations to all the winners and honorable mentions. We're so proud to support you in your creative endeavors!
"For the Culture"
I have a bracelet a friend gifted me:
Black beads tattooed with white letters that rest on my wrist.
When I am reminded how
being Black can be,
I touch it and take a deep breath.
The summer of 2020 was filled with
or lack thereof,
and the chant that echoed through streets,
News Feeds and the tempo kept by steady feet was,
“I CAN’T BREATHE.”
The world moved in madness
and methodically those words marched in my mind
in my mental
in my mouth
and they begged me to release them along with my anger and my sorrow
I remembered that I have the power of life and death in my mouth and so I refused to speak such words,
I could not let them take over my tongue and taint my temple.
Because I CAN BREATHE
and I cannot afford to surrender my breath, stained with that statement, to the streets—
I will let the signs scream it out instead.
I CAN BREATHE.
and I will bestow the blessing of my breath to those who were taken from us
through thought-out words of power and protection.
I CAN BREATHE.
For the journey
For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son
For Jesus so loved me that he bathed me in Black skin that blossoms and blooms.
it is bolded black ink words in a white paper world.
I can breathe.
I can color,
I can create!
I can cry—
I can kiss the wounds inflicted by hateful hands and words laced with legacies of lies and watch them collide into creativity
I can breathe ...
I grow gardens with my lips
I release pain from my grip
I blow people away with my voice
I dismantle the taught standard when I make my mental health my first choice
I can breathe.
And I banish the beating,
The blasphemy of what corrupt human beings do to Black men
And Black women
And Black children and Black people
With the blowhorn of my breath
I CAN BREATHE.
And I reject offering it to
anyone in the form of words that rang through the throat of a man made into a movement.
I can breathe,
I will breathe.
My words will be the building blocks that break chains
and Bury the bones of decrepit mindsets, microaggressions and malpractices.
From my words there will be born beautiful,
breath-filled human beings
I can breathe.
I can breathe
I can breathe
Alexis Robinson, also known as Alexis Taylor, is a South Florida native who is a singer, writer, painter, and purveyor of the arts. She believes that art allows for healing, community, and connection. Alexis recently received a grant for her work and looks forward to sharing her stories.
Pictures in my mind are snapshots of memories.
Memory, like my eyesight, is fading.
Some photographs in my head become a forgetting.
Left for decades they tarnish
sink into time unremembered.
Even most paper photographs in albums
or drawers show no names, years.
In a living room, two people sit
on the long blue couch against an apartment white wall
draped with Kasbah print scarves.
Sarah wears an XXL Bangles t-shirt as a dress,
purple hair chopped short, hands in mid-exclamation.
The other, a boy in plaid pencil pants,
white ruffled romantic Adam Ant style shirt,
head thrown back mid-laugh
face cut off at the photo's edge.
I hope for a way to fill in his face.
It was Beto of course, could be,
together on our only date before friendship followed.
Maybe it was Julian, in town visiting
that weekend he stayed with me instead of his parents.
It was Raul—well, no it wasn't,
that boy never would have worn ruffles.
Let's just say it was you.
Let's say it was a very long time ago moment in Hollywood.
Sliding glass balcony door was open
jacaranda full bloom sweet purple scent wafted in
mixed with pungent smoke from several joints being passed around.
There was Numero Uno pizza from the Boulevard.
Some of stood in in the cramped galley kitchen, ate
barely warm deep-dish sausage and mushroom right out of the box.
You licked my greasy fingers before you opened
the last raffia covered bottle of cheap Chianti.
Let's say the crowd fell away.
Sarah went to bed. You wandered
onto the tiny balcony, stared
at the building-covered half view of south Hollywood,
an ocean of lights spilling down
until they disappeared into the South Bay.
Let's say you smoked a gold filtered pink Sobrani,
I came up behind you, slipped my arms around your waist.
You offered a drag, I kissed your neck instead.
We ended up on the blue couch whispergiggling,
shushing, made out until one or both of us fell asleep.
Let's say all of this was real, is true, did happen, because
what I have is a faded photo in a shoebox under my bed.
Hank Henderson is long-time Los Angeles resident. He is a 2018 Lambda Literary Emerging Poet Fellow. His writing has been published in various anthologies and magazines including Under the Belly of the Beast and Entropy. Hank lives with a guy named Joe and three very spoiled cats.
In someone’s story, you are the hero.
In someone’s story, you are the villain.
In my story,
you are a bittersweet memory.
Yellowed pages, yellowed teeth,
Coffee stains on my heart
that I can’t wash out.
I’m the most closed open book you’ll ever read.
I’m full of history.
My spine cracked and broken.
Each time I’m read, I’m easier to open.
My pages full of words best left unspoken.
They tried to ban me, burn me
Out of all of the books in this grand library
off the shelf
Ran your calloused fingers over
my faded gold lettering
Fingered the worn out pages
Looked at me like I held the secrets of life
Like I was some holy text
Like the Torah or the Bible or the Quran
Could not compare to the content beneath my cover
Like I was
Perhaps that’s how every book feels
When you pick one up for the first time in five years
Like once you start reading you just can’t stop
You keep turning the pages
Chapter after chapter
And a story that could have
Lasted for an eternity
Lasts only a few months.
Then it’s done and over,
And I’m back on the shelf.
Once more a single title
in a vast catalog of stories
far greater than my own.
My jacket is getting old and dusty,
mold grows between my pages
And the bindings of my sanity are falling apart
People say love is art
But nothing about this seems beautiful.
I’m waiting for my happily ever after;
But I’m starting to feel like
the book that comes after book one
But before book three
in a trilogy
Always the second choice but never the last.
And I’m starting to think that
the author didn’t write me a happy ending
But I don’t want to be a cliffhanger.
No, I’ll never be a New York Times Best Seller
And I won’t earn you a Pulitzer Prize
But I promise
I’m worth more than a thousand reads
If you’d just take the time
to read between my lines
And see what’s inside
Holly A. Tomcak (she/they) is a 23-year-old poet from northeast Nebraska. She has been published within WSC Press’s Judas Goat and is the 2023 Acers Steele Burgess Poetry Prize winner. They have also placed twice in WSC’s poetry slam series: 4th in Fall 2022 and 3rd in Spring 2023.
in no particular order
"Touch the Grass: A Praise Poem for the Post-Y2K Poet"
it is about order she thinks // the way in which you present the information is the way it will be processed // it is all a metaphor and we just keep forgetting the language // I am stuck relearning how to write in my own tongue // everything stands for something else // everything made of something smaller // the walls made up of ghosts of atoms and we are crafting // sculpting our own stories out of agreed upon representations // zoomed out and in at the same time // lose focus in order to become clear // and so she sat and felt everything // how everything was made of something smaller and how it just keeps going on and on even when it's unbearable // sometimes I think that if an alien came down to greet me // and asked what Life was I’d say uncomfortable and sweaty // I’d say I am this body and this body is me but I am a nervous person and when I say nervous I mean I am nothing but a nervous system of electricity // there is what you are thinking and then there is what you say two houses governed by the head the heart the same // I imagine him asking how am I supposed to learn how to love you if just keep leaving me? Me? I wake up every morning and wonder who will I fall in love with today // I smile at everyone who passes by because why not // because we are just helping each other be born over and over // because in this life everything feels like a poem // because each time I breathe it is my first time filling these lungs with deep bright air
Kat Freeze is a Chicago-based poet and nanny. She is a DePaul University graduate, the 2018 Louder than a Bomb college edition slam champion and was a semifinalist in the 2023 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Awards. Her writing has been featured in Beyond Words Magazine and 14East.
Self loathing sings you to sleep each night
Thousands of unshed tears poured
Onto your pillow now that you’re
Finally alone and unable to burden
Those that love you, with your existence
Because to exist means to take up space
In a room
In someone’s mind
In someone’s heart
And to take up space means willing to
Own the body that you walk in and
The traits that you encompass
Yet, you can’t even bare to
Catch a glimpse of yourself in the
Mirror because you’re scared
That when you meet your reflection
You’ll find your mother staring back at you
And that is scarier than the
Lullaby of insults she used to
sing to you at bedtime
You fill up your cup with things that
Fuel your hatred
Since it’s easier than taming the
Demons in your mind that you’ve been
Feeding for years
You drink poison to numb the pain of
Not feeling worthy enough to take up space
So you chase highs that dull the
Ache in your soul from
Depriving it of the basic needs you should have
Been taught to accept a long time ago
But can’t even begin to comprehend how to digest
Compliments feel like
traps of manipulation
Instead of comfort
Your knees are bloody from pleading for
Forgiveness that should never have been
Taken away in the first place
Your skin is bruised by hands that
were never invited and
Your heart is torn from the toxic love you’ve
Settled for for years
You accept the love you think you deserve
But what you’ve been taught since birth
Is that deserve is a cuss word only
spat as an insult from foul lips
That struck you down and
swore on just how little you deserve
You’ve been deprived for so long
You forgot what happiness feels like
How comfortable a smile should
Live on your lips
How scary doesn’t have to mean bad things are coming
And normalcy doesn’t have to mean hard
And stable doesn’t have to mean chaos
There is no shame in loving
Feeling deeply is a blessing, not a curse
One day soon you’ll learn that
You’re overflowing with the strength and ferocity
To heal an army of broken bones and scars
And that life doesn’t need to be spent
Proving yourself to others
You’ll discover that you cannot take everyone’s words
At face value and that acceptance
First comes from within
You’ll stop chasing the sun, in all it’s beauty and radiance,
And realize that the light is within you
You’ll find the bravery to hold your head high
And meet your own reflection in the mirror and
You’ll see that contrary to what you’ve be told as a child
It is indeed possible
To stare directly
At the sun
Arielle is a queer cis female living in Los Angeles, CA. She works in the entertainment industry and loves to write and perform her poetry.
When you have sat so long with a dinner knife and fork poised around your neck, how can you not expect to be eaten?
If your stomach growls and you are told all your life to remain silent, how do you know when to start speaking for yourself?
When your ribs practically carve themselves, pushing into the soft canvas of your skin, screaming to get out, and you have been told you do not deserve to eat—how do you know when you should?
How did you ever know you had the option to begin with?
And when you figure it out, how can they not expect anything less than anger? How can they not expect fear, distrust?
They can't seem to decide what you are.
You've been treated as a kenneled hound dog all your life, been told that baring your teeth was wrong, been told that you bark too loudly, sit too widely.
You've been treated as a show dog, led around on the arm of someone, never to look, never to breathe, never to think. To start dogfights. They laugh in their booths with money raised in clenched fists—it's entertainment and their bet is on whoever's teeth is the sharpest but both of you have had your teeth filed down for generations. Still, you fight, because it is all you've known.
You've been trained to not even be perceived as human, to not even perceive yourself as human, had orders barked at you your whole life but when you try to protest, you're told that you are arrogant and selfish.
Even then, some of them will continue the slow march of bringing the silverware ever closer, metal scraping against the table because they see the fight as a challenge. They like to play with their food, it's tag and you're it. You can pretend all you want that you're the main course, the whole meal, but that doesn't change that you will still, in the end, get ripped apart. Ripped to shreds, to pieces, violated even further when you thought it could never happen. That it could never get worse.
People tell you that they are just as much victims. They need the money from betting to survive, even if it's from betting on losing dogs with dull teeth and dull eyes. They tell you that you need to love them more and they will be kinder. That they will stop treating you the way they have. That they will stop being entitled.
But all you've ever done is loved, loved with your entire being, and nothing has ever changed.
Hannah Robinson has been writing since the age of 4 and going to numerous writing camps over the years. She's an amateur with no publications under her belt but has always been lauded as a particularly strong writer amongst her many English teachers growing up.