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Poetry for All

Poetry for All
April 2016
Speaking with poet, teacher, and Holy City Youth Slam founder Matthew Foley 

Since graduating from College of Charleston in 2008, Matthew Foley has been busy. An English teacher by day (currently at Charleston County School of the Arts) and poet by evening, Foley has published two anthologies: We Could Be Oceans and The Typewriter Sutra. He co-hosts The Unspoken Word poetry series and, one year ago, released What You Will Need in Class Today, a spoken word poetry album. Still, Foley uses any downtime he might have for good: he’s also the founder of Holy City Youth Slam, which offers free poetry workshops, performances, and competitions for area kids aged 13 to 19.

Finding his rhythm: The first poets I got into were songwriters—artists like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. My first impulse was to be in a band. But it slowly dawned on me that I had no musical talent whatsoever. Still, I was fascinated by the lyrics, and I realized that if you read the lyrics aloud, it’s poetry.

Role models: In high school, I liked reading work by Charles Bukowski, which is great and angry—pretty dark stuff. Nowadays, I’m a big-time Walt Whitman fan. I turn to him, Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, and Rumi a lot. Anis Mojgani’s “Shake the Dust” completely hooked me into the world of spoken word.

Young poets: Because students’ work is often very personal, it can be challenging to offer constructive criticism without hurting feelings. I have to sort of say, “I’m so proud you shared this, but that’s kind of a weak metaphor.” It’s a hard balance to strike. You want kids to feel encouraged, but you want them to progress, too. You can’t short-change them by saying everything’s perfect.

A necessary outlet: My poem, “Sarah Wants to Ask Out a Girl,” is about a student’s poem that, when she shared it with our group, essentially became her coming-out-of-the-closet moment. (I changed her name to protect her identity.) She hadn’t yet told her mom or likely anyone else, but through poetry, she was able to express something she was terrified to say in any other setting. As a teacher, I get this feeling of pride and also gratitude. Really though, it’s just poetry working its magic.

New projects: I’m interested in how poetry can connect to spirituality and to some of the more reflective states of mind. I’m working with a yoga teacher and musician to develop an album of poetry and music for meditation and yoga called The Dharma Tapes.

Art across borders: I started teaching in North Charleston, and students’ poems were often about events in their neighborhoods—sometimes crime or gang-related stuff. At School of the Arts, where many of the kids live in the suburbs, they’re writing about different topics. Yet the poetry isn’t all that different at its core. Teens everywhere go through an intense journey of self-exploration. They’re questioning, “Who am I?” and “Who can I trust?” They share a similar sense of stress, pressure, and anxiety. Regardless of background, students need to process their feelings and express them. And poetry is the perfect outlet.

Slam goals: Kids are looking out into the world and seeing things that aren’t quite right. I want to use poetry to get them talking about those things that affect them. Kids often have some really powerful insights, and I want to provide the platform.

Give Snaps: Catch Holy City Youth Slam’s next event at School of the Arts on April 16; get details at