Writing poetry is more than cathartic to Kyla Lewis, a 17-year-old senior at GRAD Academy, a Memphis high school operated by the state-run Achievement School District.

It’s a way for her to connect with others and share her voice. And lately, her talent has paid off — literally.

Kyla won $1,000 this summer as the teen winner of the third annual Drop The Mic Poetry Slam at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The theme was “And Justice for All.” Participants had to submit audition videos, and finalists were chosen to perform. Kyla’s poem was titled “A New Pledge.” (Check out the video of her performance at the bottom of this page.)

Comparing herself to a bud ready to open, Kyla says she’s been nurtured by teachers and mentors including Timothy Moore, a GRAD Academy teacher and nationally recognized spoken word artist. She hopes that sharing her poetry will always be a part of her life.

Chalkbeat sat down recently with Kyla to talk about what she writes and why. Here are the highlights:

What got you writing?

I’ve been writing since I was little. I was brought up around great writers, but they never branched out on their talent. They stuck with Plan B. … And me, I guess it became a passion, an expression of all the energy I felt, whether it was positive or negative. It was my easiest way to stay sane in such a crazy world.

After I started working with Timothy Moore, it went from quick writing to long hours of writing and revising and editing, and days of memorizing to actually go perform. It’s a lot more than just how I feel now. It’s about how I can make the other people feel it. That’s where I’m at. I want to make everybody else feel it. That’s the thing as a writer. For people who don’t think like you or have the same thought processes as you, how can you make your thought process relatable to theirs?

How would you describe your style and the things you most enjoy writing about?

I’m developing my style. I started off as a punchline poet. The stuff I would write about would get those quick ooos or that dope thing to say. But now it’s more about how can I bring more similes, metaphors, personification, imagery? … How can I bring the entire recipe into a dope poem?

There are a lot of things I write about. I could be in the shower and think of a punchline and build a whole poem around it. But right now, it’s more about how I can morph other literary devices to make this one thing or idea.
I remember one time we were talking about (hair) bobs and weaves. We were talking about black culture and how all these girls got bobs and weaves. And I was like, you know what else is bob and weaving? Fighting. And then I thought about these boys out here bobbing and weaving and all these girls out here with bobs and weaves. And then I wrote a whole poem about my black generation from that one punchline.

Kyla Lewis
PHOTO: National Civil Rights Museum
Kyla Lewis

How many times had you performed before the Drop The Mic Poetry Slam?

Fifty-plus, I would say. I have experienced crowds of all sizes — from just a tiny crowd and making it a lively performance, to a large crowd and trying to control the snaps and the ooos and ahhs, to a timed performance. And a lot of those opportunities came from Timothy Moore.
I asked several (teachers) to sponsor a poetry team when I came to the school in 10th grade. Timothy Moore agreed, and it was a rocky start. But the next year, we competed and kicked butt in Nashville. It was a dream come true.

You said writing is a way to “stay sane in such a crazy world.” What do you mean by that?

Well, it’s the typical story of a black teen, right? Growing up in rough neighborhoods with a single parent. I’ve attended 10 schools since kindergarten because my family was moving around so much. So, with that, there’s a couple of questions I had. Religious questions. I always grew up next to a church but didn’t know the power of God or why he would let my family go through this. I experienced homelessness my sophomore year. Actually when I met Timothy Moore, I was homeless at the time. My only outlet was writing. I had went from a place where I had everything I needed to gradually becoming homeless as bills piled up and other people who lived with us moved out. I went from having my own room with my own design to living from house to house sharing with people.

Poetry was pretty much my voice. I didn’t really know how to ask people for help. I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling. But it seemed like once I got to a pen and paper or just even somewhere to type it out, I was better. That was a pathway to everything else. No matter what was going on around me, it helped me (say): I’m not going to let where I come from determine what I become. Poetry was the inspiration for me to have that mindset. This is going to be my future.

What are your plans after graduating?

I’m still deciding what major I want to do. When I got $1,000 for two minutes of performing, it got me thinking. I’m thinking about English to perfect my craft, or psychology or business if I want to do my own thing. I’ve also thought about starting my own nonprofit. But I want to be on the stage.

Editor’s note: Periodically, Chalkbeat conducts our Chalk Talk interviews with a leader, innovator, influential thinker, exceptional student, or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat with suggestions for future subjects to tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

“A New Pledge” by Kyla Lewis from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.