Most poets are happy to get a smattering of applause for their efforts, so it's unusual, and stirring, for a poet to receive a standing ovation. And it's particularly notable when that tribute comes from your high school classmates.
But that's what happened to AKeemjamal Rollins after he read a poem in school at 13 years of age. "As I recall, the poem was based on some vocabulary words, such as 'rueful.' When I was done, all the kids stood and applauded. I guess that's where my poetry career began."
Since then Rollins has made quite a name for himself in slam poetry circles, in Northeast Ohio and nationally. Last year, the local team he coached finished in seventh place at the National Poetry Slam in Decatur, Georgia, out of 72 teams. (Slam poetry, for the uninitiated, is a poetry competition in which poets read their poems and are scored by judges randomly selected from the audience.) He is also the coach of this year's Northeast Ohio slam team, The People, competing at the nationals in Denver later this summer.
Rollins has also competed in 10 other national events, as well as countless local and regional slam fests. During these intense competitions, audience members are encouraged — nay, summoned — to yell, cheer, boo, scream and react vocally in any way that moves them. In short, it's a blast.
Rollins is a master of the craft, using his background as theater performer and his gift for writing compressed, evocative language to win over virtually any audience he encounters. As Rollins says, "To succeed in slam poetry, you have to be your true self, you have to dig deep to the roots. What an audience sees in a slam event are the branches and leaves, but if the roots aren't there, the poem won't work."
Actually, Rollins didn't write about himself until 2013, but since then he's been exploring all aspects of his own roots. An example of that is when Rollins writes about his little brother Rashad who is on the autism spectrum. Rollins was astounded when one day, out of the blue, the 21-year-old Rashad said, "AKeem," since Rashad had never said his brother's name before. As Rollins explains it, "Whenever I write about my brother, I become present. I re-enter my body."
Here are two haikus Rollins has written about his brother:
He is not a thing
I don't have an autism
I have a brother
He knows shooting stars
Are angels playing Frisbee
Using their halos
When he's not slamming, Rollins works as a prevention educator at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, teaching comprehensive sex education to teens from 14 to 19 years of age in Cuyahoga County. He is in his second year of that work at the Center, and he looks forward to pursuing an Applied Behavior Analysis license in the future, so he can work with patients dealing with autism and related disorders.
With AKeemjamal Rollins, the roots run deep and wide. — Christine Howey