Dallas Youth Poets Writers Say She’s Their “Poetry Mum”


Editor’s Note: As the pandemic continues, KERA and The Dallas Morning News are working together to document its impact on the North Texas arts and culture scene. Julianna Morano of The News talks to three Dallas artists about the evolution of their work since the COVID-19 hit. This is the second in the series.

On Gabby Elvessie’s left arm is a large tattoo of the The Young Poets of Dallas logo. It’s not the only way the band has become a part of her.

Just six years ago, Elvessie was a 16-year-old poet and member of the Oral Creation for Young People organization. Today, at 22, she is its executive director.

She teaches teens the art of slamming and the use of speech as a way to heal old and new trauma.

Some of the magic has been swept away by the pandemic – the Dallas Youth Poets’ programs have been virtual since March 2020. While Elvessie says it’s a struggle to mimic the energy of being together, there were also glimmers of it. ‘hope.

This story is the second in our series asking local artists how, in 18 months, the pandemic has changed their work – for better and for worse.

Our previous profile showed how Dallas improv comedian Sydney Plant started a line of t-shirts. In our latest profile, we’ll hear Dallas multimedia artist Nitashia Johnson talk about how the pandemic has helped slow.

A silver lining

Elvessie calls young poets her “children” and they call her their “mother of poetry”.

Aeris “Orange” Jennings – a former Dallas Youth Poets alumnus – says Elvessie doesn’t just train young slam poets. She takes care of them.

“If we had anything to do, she was there in her car waiting to come get you, take you out for pizza,” Jennings said. “She was [the] kind of person just to be there.

Gabby Elvessie (right), executive director of Dallas Youth Poets with Aeris ‘Orange’ Jennings, who is an alumnus of the group. They both recited their own poems for this story. (Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

Yet the pandemic has made it harder for Elvessie to be there – physically – for the children.

In addition to virtually keeping their microphones open and their writing workshops, the group decided not to participate in Courageous new voices – an annual international poetry slam competition for young people – until he comes back in person.

But going from a distance has a silver lining, says Elvessie.

“A lot of our kids are from the outskirts of Dallas,” Elvessie says, adding that they are struggling to find transportation for in-person workshops. But on Zoom, these children have the opportunity to join.

Even when they return to in-person gatherings, Elvessie says the virtual workshops will remain – a legacy of the pandemic.

Nitashia Johnson is a multimedia artist.  She had a residency in 2020 with the Juanita Craft House, with support from the South Dallas Cultural Center, which led to the project, "The beauty of South Dallas."
Dallas improv actress Sydney Plant has channeled her passion for honoring the experiences of black women into a new line of T-shirts.  Her business is called Black Women Unlimited.

Healing power that persists

There are also rewards to writing poetry that even the pandemic couldn’t take away, Elvessie says.

The main one of them is healing. Over the years, Elvessie herself has channeled her frustration and pain into the stories she tells in her own work, and she teaches young poets to find the same catharsis in their work.

One of Elvessie’s poems, titled “Healing”, addresses this question. It starts:

My children ask me, “How can I be cured? “

They come to me

Torn hands

Broken hearts

Pens ready to suture their scars

I explain

Healing begins on the page

Go to the stage

But end with yourself

I’m still learning to grasp this concept

Elvessie calls this “the madness” of poets: that they reopen their wounds every time they “spit” or interpret a poem.

But she takes care to remind young poets that poems are only the beginning of the healing process.

As she puts it, it’s something that she’s still coming to terms with on her own – and she hopes young poets see her as living proof this side.

A version of the interview with Gabby Elvessie broadcast on KERA-FM (90.1). This story also appears on artandseek.org and will be published in the Arts & Life section on September 26th.

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