Daemond Arrindell wants to change the world. Not through the ballot box or protest marches. Arrindell’s weapon is poetry. He uses his words to touch individual lives, particularly the lives of young people.
"I met Daemond at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center," remembers hip-hop artist Hollis Wong-Wear. "I was a freaked out 18-year-old kid. And Daemond was the most calming, steadying and affirming guy."
Wong-Wear is one of hundreds of teens who’ve passed through Daemond Arrindell’s orbit. He’s been in Seattle since 2001, an émigré from New York via a Michigan college town. Arrindell had planned a career in veterinary medicine, but a chance road trip with some buddies led him down an entirely different path.
"I saw an article in the paper that Ani DeFranco was doing this poetry festival in New York City," says Arrindell. He decided to check it out, and what he saw blew his mind.
It was a "heavy-weight poetry bout," a competition that required two participants to create and perform spur-of-the-moment poems based on a theme. Seattle writer Sherman Alexie was one of the competitors, recalls Arrindell. "He crafted something that changed me."
It was more than Alexie’s ruminations on the Indian reservation where he was born that moved Arrindell. The young college student was astounded to see people of color actively engaged in poetry. As a young African-American man, Arrindell viewed poetry as something "for a lot of people who didn’t look like me." In other words, he says, old dead white guys. The poetry bout smashed his stereotypes and ignited a passion.
Spoken-word poetry doesn’t pay the bills, though. Daemond Arrindell traded in veterinary medicine for social work. When he arrived in the Pacific Northwest, he found work as a teen suicide prevention counselor. Arrindell was sincerely interested in helping the young people he met, but "the first Wednesday I was in Seattle, I went to the Seattle Poetry Slam," he says. By 2005, Arrindell had become Slam Master, the person in charge of organizing the weekly slam. "Master was really code for workhorse," he deadpans.
Eventually, Arrindell quit his day job as a counselor to become a full-time writer, teacher and poetry mentor. He supports himself working as a writer-in-the-schools, and as a mentor with Youth Speaks, a writing and spoken-word poetry project for teens, sponsored by Arts Corps. Teaching kids to write and perform poetry dovetails perfectly with Arrindell’s past life as a crisis counselor.
On a recent rainy evening, 12 teenagers surrounded Arrindell in a stairwell at Seattle’s Town Hall. In just 30 minutes, they’d be competing in Youth Speak’s All City Grand Slam. Five of the teens would be chosen to move on to a national youth competition. The kids gathered in a circle, nervously watching Arrindell.
"This is a competition, sure," he told them. "But that’s not why you’re here."
Arrindell continued his literary pep talk, encouraging the poets to trust their stories, and their unique voices. Remember, he said, there’s a crowd full of people in the audience "dying to hear each and every one of you."
The kids cheered.
Arrindell counsels confidence, but he doesn’t necessarily trust his own poetic voice. When he welcomes audiences to the weekly Seattle Poetry Slam, Arrindell is more likely to perform somebody else’s work than his own. He says that’s partly because he’s always comparing his own work unfavorably to that of other poets. But it’s also because Arrindell doesn’t create that much new work. He has very little free time to devote to his writing. In addition to his work with youth, Arrindell runs an inmate writing program at Monroe Correctional Complex, part of Freehold Theater’s Engaged Theater Project. Daemond Arrindell seems to devote all his waking hours to spoken-word poetry.
Writer Sherman Alexie, who unknowingly inspired Arrindell so long ago, is no longer involved in the world of spoken-word poetry. But Alexie believes it can be a powerful tool for social change.
"Slam poetry gives voice to those who are powerless," says Alexie. "It’s a lot of kids and poor kids and poor brown kids." Alexie sees spoken-word poetry as a venue for self expression and self empowerment for the disenfranchised.
Daemond Arrindell agrees. That’s why he spends so much time as a mentor. But the teaching may wind up forcing him to write more. His students are a major source of inspiration; as subject matter, and as little reminders that he should pick up a pen or sit down at his computer to write.
"I consider myself to be a teaching artist," he says. For too long, his focus was on the teaching, not the artistry. "Where’s the legitimacy if you’re not writing and performing?" he wonders.
Daemond Arrindell will turn in his Slam Master credentials this year to rededicate himself to writing. Maybe he’ll take the advice he dispenses to the teens he counsels. "Be kinder to yourself. It’ll work out."
In 2013 KUOW presents “13 for '13”, in partnership with the Seattle Times. This 12-part series profiles 13 members of the Seattle-area’s diverse cultural community, people who have had an impact and are poised to shape the cultural landscape in the decade to come.
Related story in the Seattle Times: "Daemond Arrindell Returns Poetry To The People"