photo: Monique Gentry
Shawn Whitsell is a spoken word poet which means his talent is multi-sensory – you have to watch and hear him perform. If I had to describe Shawn in one word it would be gift. He is gifted, using his love of language to craft poems, plays, and conversations. He is a gift to the vulnerable communities who benefit from his generous spirit because he amplifies their voices and humanity. A friend told me, “His art is in service to a larger cause.” Yes, he is an artist, but his calling is to create and teach.
Yes, he is an artist, but his calling is to create and teach.
Young Shawn was heard and encouraged by his “Village” in Kentucky when he began writing poetry in elementary school. Now he hears and encourages young people in schools, detention centers, and psychiatric facilities, teaching them spoken word, poetry that is written to be performed. Shawn is relatable to youth (he also looks like he is just past their age) so they feel comfortable. He coaches them to use the power of their voices, writing, revision, emotions, inflections, and full bodies to express their thoughts. In his workshops, students learn to manage nervousness, and be intentional. He also learns from the impressive and talented poets he guides. If you have ever seen Southern Word youth perform, you will see Shawn’s influence.
In his work, Shawn “looks for what’s happening in dark places and listens to the voices there.” He sees the people affected by issues, and his poetry captures those moments in time. Shawn’s craft is infused with activism: he talks to people who are incarcerated, without homes, or in pain. The forthcoming poem he is shaping is about the vagaries of self-isolation, influenced by conversations with imprisoned people juxtaposed with what we are saying about how Coronavirus/COVID-19 is affecting us for the limited time we are “safer at home.”
He sees the people affected by issues, and his poetry captures those moments in time.
I wondered how Shawn remains balanced and energetic considering the weighty subjects he addresses. This is a particular concern for creatives. It’s simple: he wants to be a good person like his mother, always striving to be better.
You’ll have to dig to find footage of Shawn performing poetry. However, if you attend a play by his Destiny Theatre Experience, listen for the poetry in the characters’ dialogue. The youth he teaches use their voices, and know that he expects them to teach others. Shawn has made them his legacy by giving them love, support, encouragement, and tools of language and confidence to survive and thrive and BE HEARD.