“Stories From the Womb” Poets Address Challenges Facing Women, Especially Those in Prison

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

“It’s very much a full-blown show and experience,” Silveria says. “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 present their poems at the event.

Passley hopes her poem inspires and empowers women, who 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,” Passley says. “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 participating in 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 art exchanges between her and her father, a currently incarcerated artist, 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,” Passley says.

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,” Silveria says.

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

“We wanted to go with someone from our [Spoken Soul] 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,” Silveria says.

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

“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,” Johnson says. “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 her love 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,” Johnson says. “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 center’s Carnival Studio Theater, making room for an extra 100 attendees.

In its 15 years of operation, Spoken Soul has changed and grown its lineup countless times and 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 upon.

“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, so we really want to showcase that evolution,” Silveria says.

– Mathew Messa, ArtburstMiami.com

Spoken Soul Festival Vol. 15: Stories From the Womb. 7 p.m. Friday, April 21, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Admission is free with RSVP.

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