Baltimore native Brion Gill says she was lucky to be introduced to spoken word poetry in her own living room.
“When I was about 12 years old, there was a show on HBO called Def Poetry Jam,” Gill says. “Those performances were so captivating that I would just watch re-runs over and over. And at some point I thought to myself: I could do this.”
As it turns out, that was an understatement. Gill, now 25, is a professional poet, performing around the world and hosting regular open mics in Baltimore, where she was recently crowned the 2015 Grand Slam champion by The Slammageddon Slam series, Baltimore’s official Poetry Slam Inc site. But all that experience couldn’t prepare her for the teaching assignment she received through Dew More Baltimore last year: Eager Street Academy, a school for teenagers charged as adults and housed in the Baltimore City Detention Center.
“That really changes your whole approach on so many levels,” says Gill. “Teaching at Eager St. shattered all the preconceived notions I had about children who are incarcerated. We create all these narratives for incarcerated people that make them less than human. In my experience with these young people, those are never true.”
Inspired, Gill started test-driving a poetry workshop called Free Verse with her 35 Eager St. students, ages 12-to-18. Through focused and often intense conversations on topics such as racism, love and the stresses of incarceration, Gill pushed students to produce dozens of creative written pieces. At the end of the program, students performed a showcase for family, friends and correctional officers.
“I found myself in a space where young people have completely lost their sense of imagination and creativity as a result of all the things that plague them on a daily basis,” Gill says. “That repression can be so unhealthy and actually can have physical effects on the body. Free Verse is a cathartic release in a lot of ways.”
With support from the OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship Program, more young people in prisons and group homes will have an opportunity to experience Free Verse.
Through the fellowship, Gill will identify institutions across Baltimore willing to house Free Verse workshops and train other artists to teach the program. She hopes that the project can become a staple for incarcerated youth in Baltimore, allowing them an outlet to share their stories and inspiring further creative work as returning citizens. Free Verse also can serve as a much-needed source of education, she says.
“As much as poetry is a performative art, it’s a literary art as well,” says Gill, who earned her BA in Speech and Applied Communication from Howard University in 2012. “You’re developing very basic skills—reading, writing, even researching.”
Gill also hopes to leverage her OSI-Baltimore fellowship with the broader community. She says the fellowship not only allows her to commit full-time to her artistic work but also gives Free Verse an added level of credibility with funders and peers alike.
“As an artist, sometimes you have a hard time getting your foot in the door because people are skeptical about your work,” she says. “So often, what pays your bills is not your passion. But OSI fellows have a certain level of trust within the community. People believe in the work you’re doing.”
Baltimore youth face a toxic combination of high rates of incarceration and low funding for art programs, Gill says.
“Growing up, I was given so many platforms to create: my church, my school community, the debate community at Howard, teachers who were invested in me,” she says. “I want to give a platform to young people who have had so much taken away from them.”