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Poetry out loud: Spoken word brings poetry to life

One by one, the list of words on the chalkboard grew as Ibrahima Kaba went around the room, asking the dozen people at a poetry workshop Tuesday night to each contribute a word.

Abundant. Lunar. Goat. Yearn. Toupee. Trickery.

The assignment: Come up with a three-line poem, using at least two words from the list in each line -- then recite it out loud

Express yourselves, he urged the group. "It's really where you want to take it."

As people took turns reading their work aloud, the poet from Minneapolis, who goes by the name IBé, offered encouraging feedback.

Near the end of the two-hour session at the Willmar Public Library, someone had a question: If there was one thing IBé wanted his students to learn during their time together, what would it be?

The poet didn't hesitate. "Poetry means freedom. That's what it means to me," he said.

Formal poetry, with its trappings of stanzas and rhyming iambic pentameter, is often seen as the province of professors and stuffy intellectuals. But in the past couple of decades it has gone through a lively rebirth, fueled by hip-hop, rapping, competitive poetry slams and poets such as IBé whose craft is defined by the spoken, rather than the written, word.

Brian McCormick, teen librarian at the Willmar Public Library, attended a national poetry slam a few years ago. Wanting to introduce some of these emerging new forms of poetry to a local audience, he organized Thursday's workshop as part of National Poetry Month at the library.

"It's new to a lot of people," he said of spoken word poetry.

The roots of spoken word poetry are very old, however.

IBé was born in Guinea and raised in Sierra Leone, where as a child he heard stories, history and lore from the griots, West African hereditary storytellers who were responsible for preserving and sharing their tribe's cultural history.

But he didn't realize these were a form of poetry until much later. In the late 1990s, while attending St. Cloud State University, he heard spoken word poetry for the first time.

"It was so familiar," he said. "Nobody taught me that was poetry... It just opened the door for me."

A computer database manager in the Twin Cities by day, IBé has been writing and performing spoken word poetry for more than a decade. His work earned him an Urban Griots Cultural Award in 2009 and a Midwestern Voices Award last year. In 2004 he was a Minnesota Academy Award nominee for best spoken word.

His first book, "Bridge Across Atlantic," is a collection of poems about the African and American experiences.

The workshop participants listened raptly Thursday as IBé performed some of his poetry for them. The poet chanted, sang, dropped his voice to a whisper, rattled off the words like gunfire. He spoke of the loneliness of the immigrant in "Unwell," of economic angst in "Middle-Class Blues."

Eric Patnoe of Belview and his sons, 15-year-old Zach and 13-year-old Ian, were in Willmar on Thursday when they saw a poster for the poetry workshop and decided to attend. Zach likes to write poetry and recently had one of his poems published online on a slam site, his father said.

"He's got a talent. He needs refining," Patnoe said. "We try to encourage it."

There's debate within the poetry world over whether spoken word poetry is a legitimate form. For IBé, though, it makes no difference as long as it allows the poet to freely express himself.

"I try to break down the walls and let them know the possibilities are limitless," he said.

The new forms of poetry are especially capturing the attention of young people and contributing to a renewal of interest in poetry, he said. The ability to publish on the Internet also has helped open new doors for people who want to write and share poetry.

It's proof of the enduring power of poetry, IBé said. "There is no other type of language that can capture the human emotions in the way poetry does. People still appreciate that. People come to poetry for that."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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