This weekly series highlights people in my writing circles who are exemplary literary citizens. I encourage you to look them up, buy their books, find them in the library, or otherwise read or support their writing lives.
This week, we meet literary citizen Brandon Leake
One of the small miracles that happened during the really crummy year that was 2020 was Brandon Leake’s winning of season 15 of America’s Got Talent.
Brandon won with his spoken word act, the first time a poet has ever won a large-scale talent show contest in US history.
The day after I jumped for joy at this outcome last fall, I expected to see my poetry friends’ social media feeds filled with kudos and huzzahs and congrats and mazel tovs for what seems like an impossible dream come true:
Wait, what? A black man performing spoken word on a popular talent show actually beat out the acrobats, singers, ventriloquists, comedians, and magicians to win the $1,000,000 prize, a new car, and a headliner show in Las Vegas?
And what I found instead?
Listen, I understand that there is a rift between poets who think poetry should only be classic and formal versus those who invite experimentation and freedom from certain literary restrictions.
I also understand that there is a subset of poets who do not think spoken word is poetry at all.
Fine. People will find value however they find value. They like what they like. They don’t always try new things, or they’ve been trained by certain ‘academies’ to value certain kinds of art over others.
I find all these divisions pointless and narrow-minded, frankly.
They’re as ignorant as racial divisions, which are likely behind the quiet but believably sinister crickets I described earlier.
Racism happens in the arts, too. So, so much. Way too many people who claim to be supportive—of poets of color, of young poets, of spoken word poets, of poets whose work is considered “accessible,” of slam poetics—were so silent on that celebratory day after his big win that their unspoken message was deafeningly relevant.
As I write this now, I worry there will be no justice for George Floyd (and countless others!) while Kyle Rittenhouse is out on bail frolicking like a free man without a care, posting pictures of himself in social media making bigot finger gestures with Proud Boys.
Listen, it’s not like I didn’t try to give my poetry peers the benefit of the doubt. I considered that maybe
- they don’t watch AGT
- they just hadn’t heard yet
- they were too busy trying to get their own new books out into the world during a pandemic (that’s legit overwhelming!)
Or, maybe they’re not quite as dedicated to their poetry ’causes’ as they want us to believe.
Let me speak my hopes out loud: Is this a fresh new poetry wave washing over the US?
Let’s get one thing straight: Brandon Leake’s winning says a lot about the direction our culture is heading, even if our resident poets were not there to support him.
Maybe it’s just me, but I have encountered more references to slam poetry and spoken word performance art in the last couple of years than I have in the last decade.
Amanda Gorman’s appearance and performance in DC with her inaugural poem is hardly a coincidence, either.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if Brandon can win AGT, then maybe our general population has finally discovered that poetry can be:
- accessible, entertaining, evocative, and inspiring
- something to actively seek out with friends and family over cocktails in a nightclub
- created by more than just dead white men
- meaningful to ordinary people who may need it to get through a rough patch in their lives (like, say, a pandemic)
Brandon Leake did not materialize overnight, y’all
Brandon more than deserves the literary citizen honoraria. His performances and his triumph on that huge stage were not flukes, after all. This guy, at age 28, has put in some miles.
He was an award-winning spoken word poet leading up to the competition. He’s also an artistic educator who, in 2012 (age 19, mind you), founded Called To Move (CTM) at Simpson University.
CTM is a small group of young poets developing and sharing their work and supporting their arts community. It’s now credited with inspiring others through poetry nationwide.
Brandon released a debut spoken word album, In My Thoughts, in 2016.
This effort sent him across the country and back again for 18 months of performances, speaking engagements, slams, and poetry workshop facilitation.
That’s not what a casual poet does, that is what a working poet who supports the poetry community does.
That’s what I call a literary citizen.
He published his first chapbook, B-Sides: Life’s Scraps Can Still Be Beautiful, in 2018.
At that time, he went on a second tour, known as the Dark Side Tour, across 36 states and into Mexico, Canada, and New Zealand to promote his new book as well as his new spoken word album (also in 2018), Deficiencies: A Tale From My Dark Side.
No, Brandon is not in any of my literary circles. But I loved listening to Brandon’s dispatches on AGT, each of them powerful, with a heartfelt and accessible delivery, and a relevant nod toward the trifecta of catharsis, healing, and authenticity that describes why I love certain kinds of artistic expression over others. I hope I get to see him perform live. How amazing would that be?
Ours is a nation more in need of beautiful narratives that illuminate, empower, and unite than ever before. Thank you, Brandon, for shining your gentle, honest light.