Poetry Out Loud: Button Poetry

Posted on Tue, Nov 21 2017 2:00 pm by Taylor Seaberg


Poetry Out Loud is a recitation competition founded in 2005 to inspire students and encourage their literary development. Through this competition, students obtain confidence, a critical knowledge of traditional/contemporary writing, and a mastery of public speaking. Since its start, the competition has reached over 3 million students in over 10,000 schools in the nation. MN State Competition for Poetry Out Loud will take placeat The Loft Literary Center this spring.

With this competition coming up, it would be good to highlight other Twin Cities poetry forums that are accessible to youth. One in particular contributed to how I was introduced to the world of spoken word: Button Poetry.

I’m sitting with a friend of mine, all silver-dreadlocked beauty cradling a red wine martini in hand, at a bar in downtown Saint Paul. We are discussing poetry with a woman who has just flown over from Syracuse, New York to see this particular spoken word competitive bout. Nighttime has nestled in and all of the performers have dissipated. Winner announced, cameras turned off, the laugher and collected gasps in the air trickle down from the rafters. The woman passionately discusses wanting to meet Neil Hilborn. I still recall when he worked the cash register at a Tea Garden next to Macalester campus, beardless and fresh-faced, with piercing blue eyes crinkling at the edges. Never did I imagine this man going on to top 13 million views on Youtube and become an iconic element to Button Poetry.

Button Poetry is the largest digital distributor of spoken word in the world. With the assistance of the Knight Foundation, Button Poetry Live is a monthly poetry slam competition that features nationally renowned poets and local talent, as well as free writing workshops open to the public.

Sam Cook, the executive director and founder of Button Poetry, has been featured on TedTalk and many inter-state conferences. Currently Button Poetry has 836K subscribers on its Youtube Channel, 1.3 million likes and followers on Facebook, and 55.3K followers on Twitter.

When I touched this stage for the first time, I was nineteen years old and I didn’t know the first thing about spoken word poetry. In my teenage years I sat in my high school groups, masticating on rubber cafeteria cheese pizza, recanting surrealistic fiction. I didn’t even know poetry didn’t have to rhyme. I watched as my Language Composition teacher’s eyes rolled lazily over the fall student term papers. Her body encased in a perpetually irritated funk, shoulders slumped against computer chair leather. She removed her glasses, and wiped the dust away from her eyes.

“I hate high school poetry.”

From that point on I didn’t even know high schoolers could write good poetry. The deafening statement seemed apparent kids my age didn’t know how to write. And to be honest, at my school, a lot of itwas pretty bad.

But on this chilly night we watched Shane Hawley, all brown beard and warmly awkward tics, tell audiences to score poems from low to high. With a drawn out analogy describing walking in on your parents having sex being the lowest score to still walking in on your parents but being happy because they had recently gotten back together and you were happy about it now. The night ebbed and flowed between thematically comedic poetry and hard-hitting testimonials based in trauma, narratives of assault, and racial oppression. Audience goers were particularly enthralled by the poetry feature and the Loft Literary Center’s Program Director, Bao Phi reading his most recently released book, Thousand Star Hotel. Shane Hawley described Bao as being a spoken word great and his close friend (back when horse drawn carriages were still an apparent thing).

To attend a Button Poetry Live Event next month, check out their Facebook page here. 

The next Button Poetry Live event (December) will feature Porsha Olayiwola or “Poscha O”, a “Black, poet, dyke-god, hip-hop feminist, womanist, friend—who believes in pixie dust and second chances.”  A resident of Boston, Porsha O is the reigning Individual World Poetry Slam Champion (IWPS).

The MN State Competition for Poetry Out Loud 2018 will take place at the Target Performance Hall at Open Book in Minneapolis, in spring of 2018. For more details on attending the competition or (for high school educators) registering for next year, check out the Loft program page here. 

Taylor Seaberg, the Loft's Fall 2017 Poetry Out Loud intern, is an African American multi-instrumentalist with a passion for music in digital, electric, and acoustic realms. Taylor is a current 2016-2017 Intermedia Arts Spoken Word Verve Grant recipient and multi-instrumentalist/founder of alt jazz, neo soul, hip hop collective, Seaberg, with players Jay Weiler (drums), Logan Mehr (keys), Matt Trice (saxophone), and Justin Halverson (bass). Taylor is also an acting event coordinator for artist non-profits Button Poetry and Face Forward. You can learn more about Taylor's work here.