Every once in a while, you hear a voice that immediately springs you to action. Recently, for me, that voice belonged to spoken word poet, blues musician, and public speaker Micah Bournes.
My first time hearing Micah was on the STORY Podcast. Learning he was a student of hip-hop as well as a man of faith, I was intrigued by his perspective. But then, I heard him recite his poem Freak Show and absolutely LOST it. I knew I had to shine a light on Micah for the Car Window Poetry blog.
I recently spoke with Micah about pairing vulnerability with hope, tactfully using metaphor in poetry, and not seeing your passions as separate but marrying them together.
How did you get started writing poetry?
I grew up listening to hip-hop. Although, I never wrote it when I was in high school. I just was a big fan of the creativity and the lyricism, the turn of phrase – all the poetic elements of it, although at the time I wouldn't recognize it as that. I just loved hip-hop.
When I was a kid, I used to take it upon myself to try to memorize every lyric in songs and try to rap them just like the rappers would, so that was my first interest in creative writing although I didn't recognize it.
But what ended up happening was, during my freshman year of college, I became friends with a homie who had some recording equipment. In his dorm room, he would just download some free beats online and then he'd say, "Hey dawg, let's try to write some songs." So we went in his dorm and had the bootleg setup – we were hanging blankets to try to make it sound-proof and things like that – and we just started writing rap songs on the weekends and after class.
But, in my head, because of the stereotypes against hip-hop and rap music, I didn't make the connection that I was starting to write creatively. It wasn't like, Oh I'm a writer, I'm a poet, I'm a creative writer. No, I'm rapping, and rapping is not anything intelligent. Rapping isn't anything academic. It's actually something I do to escape the environment of college because I always struggled in school. School was really hard for me.
So I started writing poetry my freshman year of college, but I didn't realize it because, I wasn't writing, I was rapping. That's how I thought about it. But things changed the summer before my junior year. I went to college in Chicago, but I went home for the summer and there's this spot in Los Angeles called Da Poetry Lounge. They meet every Tuesday, and it's an open mic for spoken word poetry. Then, once a month, they have a slam.
I was home, and my homie asked me if I wanted to go with him to this poetry thing. I had seen spoken word on YouTube, but I had never seen it in person. So I went and I was just blown away. It was crazy to me because it was a room full of strangers and people were standing up and they were sharing poems about the most personal things in their lives – their deepest struggles and thoughts and pains. And it was crazy because it wasn't weird, like people were okay with it. It was a place where you were allowed to be vulnerable.
How did being in that environment affect you?
I had never been in an environment where people were being that real and raw and honest, so I felt very connected because people were saying things that I had experienced before, but, when I went through them, I thought I was the only person in the world who felt that way. Now, all of a sudden, I'm sitting in the audience and cats are speaking my heart. And they were also from all kinds of different backgrounds. You had guys and girls, it wasn't any type of religious thing. There were people from all different worldviews and all different cultures, and it was crazy to me because I realized that we actually have a lot more in common than we think if we have the courage to be real with each other.
No matter who you are, where you're from, what you believe, all of us have experienced the range of human emotion. All of us have been disappointed, afraid, excited – everything. So I was in that room and I wanted to be a part of it. It's cool to receive, but I wanted to contribute because I felt so alive by other people's vulnerability that I thought maybe there's someone I can help if I have the courage to share my story.
It was different from rapping. Rapping didn't seem as vulnerable to me because I wasn't digging as deep into my personal emotions as much, so I decided to start writing spoken word so I could participate in the open mic. I wasn't trying to become a poet. I didn't think I was good at it. I just wanted to participate because, honestly, it wasn't that everybody was good. There were a lot of folks who were only mediocre or maybe even poor writers, but their vulnerability still impacted me. It's crazy to see people up there shaking, scared and nervous, but they're reading these things that were so personal.
Was there anything else that motivated you?
The other thing that motivated me to start writing spoken word was that, even though people were being honest, by the end of the night there was a whole lot of sadness. It was like everybody was just commiserating. Life sucks, but it's better since it sucks for all of us. I kept thinking to myself there has to be more than this. It's good to be vulnerable, but also, as a person of faith, I believe there is hope after that pain. If all we're doing is sharing our pain, we're not actually helping each other. It's a very temporary satisfaction – Well, at least I'm not alone.
Misery loves company, but, at the end of the day, it's still misery. My challenge to myself was, How do I write in a way that's just as raw and real and vulnerable, but also incorporates hope? – not just because I want a happy ending, but because I actually do believe there is hope. So those were my two motivations: I loved the vulnerability, but I also wanted to contribute in a way that brought some hope to a community that seemed pretty hopeless.
So then, what did you do?
I started writing, and I started going to open mics at every opportunity I could. I wasn't good at first. I just enjoyed it. I didn't keep writing because I thought I was good. I kept writing because I loved it. Then, after a year, I had enough poems and enough confidence to start competing in poetry slams.
Also, I was rapping still. I had started to get a little bit of buzz from my hip-hop the first two years of college, so I was doing little tiny gigs around Chicago and on campus and I started incorporating poetry into my sets of hip-hop. Instead of doing four songs, I'd do three songs and a poem. People liked my hip-hop, but they loved my poetry. They were like, Yo, the rap was cool, but that poem was fire!
So I started getting more attention for my poetry, but then also, when I started competing in poetry slams instead of just open mics, I started winning left and right. I won most slams I competed in. Then, I figured maybe I was better than the average person at this. When people saw me perform at slams, they started giving me invitations. Then, the rest is history. People started paying me to perform at their events, and it just grew from there.
In your poetry, what role does vulnerability play?
To me, vulnerability is central. There are so many expectations on our lives and how to act. In fact, I was just talking about this a few nights ago with some friends. People are afraid to be themselves. The funny thing is we think we're competing with other people, but really we're competing with other people's masks.
The thing I like about open mics is that one person takes their mask off and then everybody else sees it's okay for them to remove theirs. I think vulnerability invites people to be real. There are things someone might not ever admit, but, when someone else admits it, they feel like that's everything they've been wanting to say.
Vulnerability is one of the most important parts of poetry, but it needs to be done with purpose because there is a way to go about it where you put everything out there but do nothing with it and not give yourself time to heal or even process. I have this poem called Dry Bones and I talk about that concept and I say:
"If your aim is only to get it all out, then you'll finish feeling empty – not relieved."
You have to do more than just put it out there, but vulnerability is still important. I tell folks what makes your writing compelling is the honesty. You can use all the flowery language you want, but, when people are just simple and straightforward about how they're feeling, often those are the most piercing lyrics.
Are there any lyrics that stick out to you?
I know a lot of folks will laugh at this, but I'm a huge John Mayer fan. And a perfect example of that to me is his song Say. It's not metaphorical at all. The chorus is literally the same thing over and over again: "Say what you need to say, say what you need to say, say what you need to say, say what you need to say." But why do people resonate with it? Because we've all been in those conversations where we know exactly how we feel and what we want to say, but we're sitting there and we're shaking and we're sweating and we just can't get it out. And he's like, You know what? Even if your hands are shaking and your faith is broken, do it with a heart wide open. Just say it. That simple vulnerability has resonated with so many people.
To me, sometimes metaphors are helpful. But most times if you just say it straight up, it really hits folks. Often, I actually think metaphor is abused in poetry. To me, the purpose of metaphor is to find something in the world that people are familiar with and you say, Hey I'm trying to explain this idea. It's kind of like this. So let me liken it to something that you're aware of, so that comprehension is enhanced.
What poets often do with metaphor is what I call hiding behind the metaphor. They have something they want to communicate, but they don't quite have the courage to say it straight up, so they put on layers and layers of metaphor until people are like, What the heck does this mean? And the writer is like, Well, you know it's kind of secret and hidden. I think it's cool to have things that are hidden in your writing, but you don't want to overdo it.
Can you name a work of poetry that uses metaphor well?
I'll use a biblical example. One of the most famous passages in Scripture is Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He leads me beside still waters." The author was communicating with a culture that was familiar with farming and shepherding. In order to explain his relationship with God, he described God like a shepherd. You know how a shepherd takes cares of his sheep and protects the sheep from wolves and makes sure the sheep have clean water and are in green pastures to eat? That's what God does for me.
This use of metaphor doesn't make the passage more complicated. It makes it more clear. That's what metaphor is supposed to do, but often it's not like that.
In your writing, what is the story you're seeking to tell?
Honestly, I didn't set out with any particular aim. But the more I started writing, other people helped me realize the themes that were already present in my work. For me, I was just writing about my experiences – both personal and the people I met.
For example, my first album of spoken word was called The Man Without A Name and there was this one time where I tried to introduce myself to a homeless person and I said, "Hey I'm Micah. What's your name?" And he says, "I don't have a name." Then, we have this really tense interaction where I'm like, "Well, what do people call you?" He says, "I don't wish to be bothered." And he's just really hardened, so I went home and I couldn't stop thinking about him because I was like, Man, how has he been treated as a homeless person to where he began to embrace this namelessness, this lack of identity? He expected people to just ignore him.
The thing is, when I wrote that poem, I was just writing about our interaction. I didn't go home thinking I was going to write a poem addressing the issue of homelessness. I just met a dude. He told me he didn't have a name. It made me think. I wrote a poem.
The same thing happens when I write about issues of culture. I'm black in America. Stuff happens. So I process my life experiences through my poetry. I just started writing. Then, after a while, when people would hear my work, they'd say things like, Aw man, I love how you write about themes of justice. I like how you write about culture. I was just like, Oh, I guess that's there. I just write as life comes to me.
Is there a work you've read or listened to that reflects this type of inspiration?
There's a book I love that's called Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, and he talks about inspiration. He basically says write about what your everyday life has to offer you. If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it. Blame yourself. Admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches.
Basically, he's just going on about the idea that a lot of people think they need huge, crazy things to happen, but he says that the best poets go through life slowly and they observe the things around them and they see the beauty in it and they're inspired by it.
So I don't have any particular themes, but I've written a poem about a bottle of shampoo. I've written a poem about a tattoo on a girl's foot. I've written a poem about a t-shirt a person was wearing, and none of it has really been intentional. Most of my poems just come to me as I've been observing life.
Why use words to express the moments in your life that you're observing?
Honestly, I don't feel like words were ever something I chose. I was just always fascinated with them. Even before I started writing, I loved hip-hop. I was specifically enamored with all the words and all the ways the words were strung together.
I didn't really consider myself an artist or a creative in any other way before I started doing poetry. I might have been, but I just wasn't aware. When I did start writing, there were parts of me I didn't even know existed and I immediately felt so alive.
Again, struggling with feeling like I wasn't smart because I didn't do well in math and science, when I started expressing myself through words, it was the first time I felt intelligent, where I felt like I had something to say. And I felt like there were parts of me that were laying dormant for so long that just came alive through writing. So, for me, it's like, Why would I not do this?
But I didn't consciously decide words were the best vehicle to express how I feel. Words were just the only thing that connected and worked and sparked. Even before I started writing, I was obsessed with hip-hop. My family was annoyed with me because I was constantly reciting lyrics. It's the only thing I was ever really passionate about.
Not just through the arts, either. I really loved talking, especially with my brother. My older brother is a lawyer now, so it's no wonder he loves talking. But we used to debate all the time. We shared a room and, every night before bed, we would just talk and debate and have friendly arguments. It was arguing with words and having to express ourselves and challenge each other's ideas, so I've always been a words person.
You refer to yourself as a poet, musician, and public speaker. How do you leverage the power of your crafts to make a difference?
I tell people all the time that the best thing you can do is marry your passions. Whatever they are, bring them all together because I didn't think I could do that at first. When I was graduating college, I knew I liked writing but then I also was passionate about issues of justice. In my head, those were two separate things. I thought I was either going to pursue a career as an artist or I was going to pursue a career in the non-profit world or justice work.
In my head, these were two separate lives I had to choose from and I chose the justice world at first. I applied to the Peace Corps and I was going to go, but I ended up not being able to go because of health issues that prevented me from going. That really sucked and I was really disappointed, and then I tried to do several other things before deciding to pursue a career in the arts.
It was me thinking I'm not going to do justice work – I'm going to pursue a career in the arts. But that's really when people helped me see that actually my poems talk about justice a lot and they can be used for justice. Then, it all made sense. So it kind of happened on accident at first, but, with a little bit of intentionality, now I can speak into the conversation of social justice on purpose.
At the same time, I never want to be so agenda-driven that it feels like I'm being driven by an agenda. I still like the fact that, most of the time when I talk about justice, it just comes from life experiences. But for other people, no matter what your passions are, no one is only into one thing and one thing only. We're complex creatures. We change. So I believe, for example, if you're passionate about cooking and you want to open a restaurant and you also care about justice, those things can come together. How can you run a restaurant that contributes to justice? And it's not always about starting a non-profit. You can start a business and you can be creative with it. You can connect it to the other things that are important to you.
I think that's when we feel most fulfilled because we don't have to choose between our own complexity. If I only did justice work and didn't get to write poetry and perform, even though I would be doing good things, I wouldn't be completely fulfilled. If I only wrote poetry and just shared my thoughts and was talking about my life and not connecting it to things that are bigger than me and important issues, then I wouldn't be fulfilled. I don't ever want to do one or the other.
With a little bit of creativity, anybody can marry their passions. And I think everyone is creative, even people who don't consider themselves to be creative. They've just been taught that creativity means you can sing or paint or whatever. I think people who are good at math are creative because you look at the same problem that I look at and I say, "There's no solution," and you say, "Actually, you can come at that problem from several different angles and find the answer," which means you can think about it creatively.
I encourage everybody to explore their creativity because often that's discouraged in traditional academic settings and in cultures of families and homes. Creativity is seen as not as important as other pursuits, but that's just not true. I think it's just as important and can be married to the other things that you care about and that are also important.
What are you consuming right now that you love?
Creatively, I've found that I appreciate other artists, other poets, and other rappers, but they don't necessarily inspire me to create. They just make me enjoy what I do, but, again, I get inspired usually from things that, for a lot of other folks, might be seen as not creative. I read a lot of autobiographies because, to me, real life is stranger than fiction. I have a hard time getting into fantasy and fiction, but, when I read the real things that people went through, it inspires me.
Right now, I'm reading this book called Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins. I've found that, when I'm not reading, I don't write as much. Even though I struggled in school, once I graduated and realized I didn't have to read by a deadline or be told what I had to read, now I love reading. I love learning. I just didn't like the pressure of school.
Because of everything that's been going on, I've been reading a lot of literature about the black American experience and I love it. Even people like Martin Luther King. We hear his name a lot, but I realized I had never read his primary sources. I'd only heard about him. I'd only had my white teachers teach me about him. I'd never actually directly read the things he had to say about his philosophies, but I figured I'd probably have a different experience if I did. And I did. It was amazing.
I read his book Why We Can't Wait. I read his collected works, The Radical King, collected by Dr. Cornel West, and they gave a different picture of Dr. King. I read the autobiography of Assata Shakur. These are all books I've read in the last two years. And now I'm reading Black Feminist Thought, and these books are giving me the right words for the time we're in.
I also love experiencing different cultures through food. Eating with people is just important, number one. Also, you can read about a culture, but so many things happen around food and the way that people eat food, even the food themselves. Foods have stories. Through my travels, I've been exposed to a lot of different things that I never was growing up.
For example, there are these things called soup dumplings. It's part of a sub-genre of Chinese food called dim sum. It's not like orange chicken and noodles. That junk is delicious, but it's very Americanized. When I went to Hong Kong, I really got into dim sum, so now I'm going to all these dim sum restaurants. I like being in environments where I'm a minority to minorities.
I really like theology and philosophy, but I was talking to a friend and I realized a couple of years ago that I had never read a single book of theology or philosophy that wasn't written by a white male. My thoughts about God and my thoughts about how to think have been hijacked by one tiny slice of humanity. Now, I've loved a lot of the philosophers and theologians I've read, but white guys are not the only people who have good things to say, so I've been very intentional the last few years about reading things from minorities and women, exclusively actually. I haven't read anything by a white guy for probably two years now, and it's been amazing.
Car Window Poetry invites you to bring light into the lives of unsuspecting people by sharing poems of encouragement on car windows. What words of light would you like to bring into someone's life today?
I'm not much of a freestyler, but one of my favorite quotes is by a poet Saul Williams. He says:
"And I promise to learn to love the way I've learned to fear."
That has meant a lot to me over the years. We are taught to be afraid of so many things and to fear all the time and to fear everything. So it's valuable to be able to say to the same degree to which I was taught to fear things, I'm going to learn to love things. Instead of fearing everything and everyone, I'm going to love everything and everyone. That has been quite a challenge for me, so I love that quote.
To learn more about Micah, you can check out his website here. It features his new blues album No Ugly Babies, videos of his spoken word poetry performances, and information on how you can book him for your next poetry event!