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‘Stories from the Womb’ poets address challenges facing women, especially those in prison

Written By Mathew Messa
April 19, 2023 at 12:28 PM

Miami Norland Senior High School’s Spoken Word Team “Freedom Writers” perform at Spoken Soul Festival in 2018. This year the theme is “Stories from the Womb” at the Arsht Center on Friday, April 21. (Photo Courtesy of Moment77)

Miami’s Spoken Soul Festival turns 15 this year, and co-director Annette Gonzalez Silveria says she expects it to be the most engaging production yet.

“It’s very much a full-blown show and experience,” says Silveria, “The poetry is profound, and we add other elements to it through music, through video, and through performance.”

Spoken Soul Festival’s theme this year, “Stories from the Womb,” is set against the backdrop of the constant challenges women face in society. The event will feature four poets – all women from Miami – who will each present a poem offering their unique perspectives on motherhood.

Joining Spoken Soul’s lineup and list of collaborators is Beyond the Bars, a Miami-based organization that provides resources for formerly and currently incarcerated people and campaigns for their rights. Poets Katherine Passley, deputy director at Beyond the Bars, and Jensetta Nerestant, member of the organization and a formerly incarcerated mother of nine, will be presenting their poems at the event.

Venus Rising Women’s Drum and Dance Circle perform at Spoken Soul Festival in 2018. (Photo Courtesy of Moment77)

Passley hopes her poem inspires and empowers women, who she says often become symbols of stability in a household when a loved one has been arrested.

“I wrote it kind of as a battle cry… I want women to feel empowered,” says Passley, “Usually when their loved one is arrested they hold the house down, they hold themselves down, and they hold their children down, and so it’s a poem to lift up women and anyone who identifies as a woman.”

A livestream will also broadcast the Spoken Soul Festival to correctional institutions across Miami-Dade County, where the incarcerated individuals who are part of the Caged Bird Arts program will be watching.

Through the program, Passley and other members of Beyond the Bars reach out to incarcerated individuals so that they may exchange art or even have it showcased and auctioned at special events like their annual “Poetry Slam” hosted by Passley. The money the incarcerated individuals make from art sold at the auctions can then be placed “on their books,” – an inmate’s prison bank account – or held for them until they are released.

The Caged Bird Arts grew from Passley’s own art exchanges between her and her father – a currently incarcerated artist –  and into a program she leads at Beyond the Bars. She stressed the importance of having accessible art for incarcerated individuals.

“Making it as accessible as possible is super important because otherwise they wouldn’t have any kind of connection to what’s happening out here, with the art that they have inspired,” says Passley.

Silveria also stressed the importance of partnering with Beyond the Bars to promote accessibility to art.

“We wanted to give a voice to a community that doesn’t necessarily have their art or their voices heard,” says Silveria.

Poet Haibian performs at Spoken Soul Festival in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Angel Valentin)

Joining Passley and Nerestant on stage are poets Micah Marie Johnson and Marie Whitman. Silveria thought it appropriate to invite Whitman, who has previously presented at the festival, back to the stage.

“We wanted to go with someone from our (Spoken Soul’s) camp that we’ve worked with in the past. We thought it would be really special to have someone that has seen that evolution and to come back and be on the stage here at the Adrienne Arsht (Center),” says Silveria.

Johnson, also the director of Miami Poetry Club, a nonprofit offering monthly poetry workshops and classes, and although she is not the mother of a child, Johnson wants her poem to speak to other elements of motherhood.

“From my side, I am not a traditional mother, I can’t identify myself as a traditional mother in the sense that I’ve birthed a child, but I will say that I have mothered many people, I have birthed many projects, just like in that sense I have birthed this poem,” says Johnson, “ I don’t want to think of the womb as the only thing that’s important when you think about motherhood.”

Johnson, whose work appeared in a published anthology titled “Love Letters to the 305: A Collection of Miami Poetry and Photography,” maintains that participating in events uplifting the arts in Miami is key to continuously shaping its diverse culture and arts, and growing the love she has for her hometown.

“I love this city, I’m very passionate about Miami. I think it’s a magical place, I think there’s a reason why it has that name – the Magic City,” says Johnson, “I think anything is possible here, everything is possible here, and we have an opportunity to really connect with incredible, talented, and innovative people, and families who make this city move.”

This year, the festival has moved from the Adrienne Arsht Center’s 150-seat Peacock Foundation Education Center to the Arsht’s Carnival Studio Theater, making room for an extra 100 attendees.

Miami Norland Senior High School’s Dynasty Steppers perform at Spoken Soul Festival in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Angel Valentin)

In its 15 years of operation, Spoken Soul has changed and grown its lineup countless times, changed locations countless more, all an exciting evolution Silveria – who has followed the festival since its earliest iterations and in recent years has joined the team of organizers making it all happen – fondly reflects on.

“I say it’s from alley to Arsht Center because we started very very small, and in different spaces, and then we’ve been really lucky to be at the Arsht (Center), so we really want to showcase that evolution,” says Silveria.

WHAT: “Spoken Soul Festival Vol. 15: Stories From the Womb”

WHERE: Carnival Studio Theater at The Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33132.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, April 21.

TICKETS:  Free, but RSVP requested.

INFORMATION: 305- 949-6722 or email tickets@arshtcenter.org

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