Poetry helps Yesha to find her voice
Yesha Townsend never intended to be a poet. Rapper was her vocation of choice. But children have a way of changing everything.
The 29-year-old blames Gavin Smith for the intervention. Five years ago she was in Minnesota, working towards her bachelor's degree, when the Chewstick founder asked her to consider coaching Bermuda's National Youth Poetry Slam team.
Their first international competition was San Francisco's Brave New Voices. According to Ms Townsend, the trip “changed [her] entire life”.
“We had a team of eight kids and when we got there there were hundreds of intelligent, deep kids running around being loving and smart with each other,” she said.
“Also, hugely diverse. There were kids who were well aware of their gender dichotomies and sexualities.
“That was the first time I had come into contact with forms of sexual orientation I hadn't here.”
It was especially eye-opening as she had never publicly addressed her own sexuality. She started writing about her own “queerness”.
“The catalyst was one of the kids that I mentored. I'll never forget the first time I met her. She came into Chewstick looking like a tomboy, but so confident in herself, like she didn't worry about what anyone thought of her.
“I remember thinking, damn I couldn't be her at 18, 19.”
That meeting inspired the poem, Gracie. Safely overseas at the Women of the World Poetry Slam in March, she revisited the topic.
“That's a poem that I wasn't intending on doing in Bermuda. It's about being queer in this island essentially, and growing up with homophobia being a part of my culture,” she said.
“If my own discomfort comes at the sacrifice of some kid who is struggling, fine. There's a queer kid, sitting in a classroom on this island who feels othered, who feels like something is wrong with them, who feels like they're not worth it. That is a problem.
“Bermudians don't like hearing the L-word. Everyone is ruffled easily.
“For someone to say, ‘Who's this gay person teaching my child poems?', that would kill me. I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable. I only recently started allowing myself to be a bit more outspoken about my queerness — not anyone else's — just my own, in poetic form.”
While she loves the craft, she tries not to get caught up in the competition.
“Slam is such a touchy thing for me because you end up writing poems for points,” she explained.
“That's [the opposite of what] we drill into the kids: ‘You don't write poems for points; you write poems for you'.
“You write poems because you needed to write the poem.
“You write poems to figure something out. You write poems if you're scared. You write a poem if you don't understand something. You write poems to learn.
“You write poems to grow. Sometimes you don't even know why you wrote a poem.”
The national team has been to four BNV festivals. They plan to return to San Francisco for the annual event next year.
“The most gorgeous part is kids finding family,” Ms Townsend said. “Finding other kids like them and learning and growing through words and language.
“That's how the kids grow; from writing poems to doing something else. It will keep changing. I never thought this would be my role four years ago.”
Ms Townsend leaves at the end of the month to start a master's degree in creative writing and hopes to teach one day.
She credits her “kids” for the decision and was therefore particularly upset by the fire that destroyed Chewstick's premises last month.
The charity spent two years renovating the property and lost most of its belongings in the blaze.
Ms Townsend described it as “gut wrenching”.
“This particular iteration of Chew took so long. We had opened not even two months ago. It was like getting to the finish line and tripping. It's heartbreaking,” she said.
“The first thing I thought about was the kids. I don't have the space for them now.”
In the US, she plans to return to her rap career with a new band, Donna, named after her mother, Donna Hollis, who passed away in 2007.
In the meantime, she's concerned about how the local LBGTQ community is treated after June's referendum and the Preserve Marriage group's “smear campaign” left her feeling disheartened.
“Every couple of decades we choose someone to make a subhuman and for so long it was, and still is, black people,” she said. “That's what you've just done. You've relegated queer people to being less than human. I'm a queer, black woman, so I'm way down there.
“It's disheartening. And I don't really talk about it that much because I don't want to be a spokesperson. Spokespeople get crucified.”
• To donate: www.chewstick.org/online-donation. Ms Townsend is holding a farewell Chewstick Griot session on August 26. Location to be announced.