Jah Smalls has been writing poetry since he was very young. When he was in middle school, his friends would ask him to write love poems, and they would share them with their youthful crushes.
“I wish I could remember if every poem I wrote had a successful outcome, but I cannot,” Smalls said. “However, it certainly gave me the confidence I needed as a writer.”
Smalls grew up in New York’s Brooklyn borough, but for over 20 years he has made Charlotte his home. His love for poetry and the written word is one of the reasons why he is working with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library as it kicks off National Poetry Month in April.
When Smalls became adult, he recognized his love for blues music. “You cannot have blues unless you’ve gone through something grand,” he said.
In 1991, the colossal thing happened. Smalls was assaulted by two acquaintances that he’d known for years. In a robbery gone wrong, the assailants shot at Smalls five times. Of the five bullets that were fired, Smalls was hit by four of them, one in the abdomen. Another bullet passed through his right cheekbone and traveled through his head, ending up lodged in his left jaw unable to be removed to this day.
In 2011, Smalls was disabled by an on-the-job injury. Later, he learned that having lost nearly 80% of his vision, his daily head pain and nerve damage from the gunshot wounds, and the post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that he sustained at 19 years of age had already left him disabled.
“I was unaware of my broken spirit and unaware of only living a lifestyle of survival,” Smalls said. “However, I found my home once I returned to writing.”
Almost six years ago, Smalls and his brother decided to start an open mic night. Amazingly enough, what they set out to do surpassed anything they imagined.
“Our initial idea was simply having a space where, as the poets would say we could ‘get free’,” Smalls said. “No one knew that moments after we would have the ability to change lives.”
Smalls believes that if we can teach youth how to write, creatively, from those major (sometimes traumatic) moments that they have to walk through, eventually they will have the courage to say or speak out about the issues that are discomforting to them.
“I believe that middle school can be such a traumatic time for many children,” Smalls said. “We have to fill our neighborhoods with individuals who have been given the tools, important tools, needed for communication.”
Fast forward to 2019, when he walked into the uptown Charlotte Library to ask about using an auditorium for a poetry event. Smalls met with library staff who were devloping plans for National Poetry Month and the wheels began to turn. They collaborated to create a grand celebration, complete with workshops, and open mic, countdown clock and more.
His goal for National Poetry Month is a celebration of poetry.
He wants poets to show their gifts to the entire city with the hope that the city will embrace them in their healing process.
“We save lives through our travels in the realm of poetry,” Smalls said. “It's our own lives we are saving.”
Since 1996, April has been designated National Poetry Month by the Academy of American Poets. The purpose of the monthlong celebration is to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. Charlotte Mecklenburg Library is offering a variety of poetry programs at various locations during April to celebrate.
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